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Regents chancellor sidesteps questions on commissioner

(L-R) NYS Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch,

(L-R) NYS Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, NYS Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King, Jr., and Regent Roger Tilles look on during a forum organized by Senator Carl Marcellino at Oyster Bay High School. (Oct. 15, 2013) Credit: Barry Sloan

The state's top education policymaker declined Monday to respond to teacher-union attacks on Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., saying she considers it a diversion from efforts to upgrade students' academic skills and teachers' job performance.

Merryl Tisch of Manhattan, chancellor of the state Board of Regents, sidestepped questions from reporters regarding both King's status and strong criticism of him by Richard Iannuzzi, president of the powerful New York State United Teachers union.

Tisch, during a brief break in a Regents meeting, acknowledged recent complaints, telling reporters that she and the commissioner will continue to make adjustments in their drive to upgrade learning through a phase-in of national Common Core academic standards and related curricula in schools across New York.

"Everybody recognized that this is going to be awkward at the beginning," said Tisch, an ardent advocate of higher standards. "But for God's sake, we've got to give this time."

"Dr. King leads that work, he leads the department," Tisch said. The chancellor added, however, in reference to the latest criticism of King, "I don't like the politics of personalization, and I won't be drawn into it."

The chancellor and other Regents appoint the education commissioner and set policy for staffers in the Education Department.

A major issue is Albany's teacher evaluation plan, first approved in 2010 and still being phased in statewide. Union representatives including Iannuzzi, who formerly taught in Central Islip, initially supported the plan, which was a big factor in the state's winning nearly $700 million in federal Race to the Top money.

Union support quickly soured, however, as state education staffers ran into delays in producing school curriculum guides that teachers are supposed to use in classrooms where their job performance is evaluated. The Education Department now says all guides should be available next month.

NYSUT, the statewide union, has been for months calling for a three-year moratorium on using results from tougher state tests in grading students and evaluating teachers.

Last week, Iannuzzi said that "mounting frustration" with what he called King's refusal to heed concerns of teachers and parents would lead him to seek a no-confidence vote from the union's directors later this month. The Education Department responded by calling Iannuzzi's call for a moratorium a "distraction."

Monday, Iannuzzi continued to hammer away, saying the commissioner "is deliberately attempting to deflect attention from his failed implementation plan and obsession with testing by blaming everyone but himself."

King, for his part, told a reporter, "Clearly, Mr. Iannuzzi is under a lot of internal pressure, and that leads to criticism of me."

"The issue isn't me," he said. "All the work we're doing is work not only that the Regents are committed to, but also that the state is committed to."

Tisch's remarks Monday contrasted with statements by other Regents in recent months supporting King. The board's vice chancellor, Anthony Bottar of Syracuse, recently praised the commissioner's grace in responding to angry comments by parents and others at public forums held since October across the state, including three on Long Island.

Some political analysts regarded Tisch's latest statements as a sign of potential trouble for King, who became commissioner in April 2011 with strong support from the chancellor.

"I would perceive it as less than a vote of confidence on her part, or on the part of the Board of Regents," said Douglas Muz-zio, a professor of public affairs and political analyst at Baruch College in Manhattan.

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