A decision by State Education Commissioner John King to cancel a community meeting focused on new state curriculum standards has angered parents and teachers who hoped to air their concerns at the Williamsville event next week.
The town hall-style meeting was one of four across the state that King canceled after he was met with criticism and shouting during the question-and-answer period of a similar meeting in Poughkeepsie on Thursday. King’s explanation – in which he blamed “special interests” for disrupting the first meeting – angered some parents who had planned to attend next week.
“It just is a blatant disrespect for the people he represents,” said Molly Dana, a West Seneca parent who was helping to organize a protest ahead of King’s Williamsville appearance before the event was canceled. “To call parents a special interest group, it’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. There are a lot of groups out there that are organizing, but the groups are groups of parents, first and foremost.”
Local parents and teachers who have raised concerns about state testing in schools and the state’s new Common Core curriculum had planned to attend the meeting in Williamsville to pose questions to King about the effectiveness of the state requirements.
The president of the New York State Parent Teacher Association, which had organized the forums along with the New York State Department of Education, said in a statement Monday on the organization’s website that the Poughkeepsie event was not intended as a “protest rally” or to become “a forum for insult, personal attack, or overall disregard.”
“This was to be an opportunity for information to be shared, for questions to be asked and facts clarified and for members to share their experiences and concerns,” wrote PTA President Lana Ajemian, adding that the “intent was not realized.”
Video of the first meeting in Poughkeepsie showed that King gave a roughly 90-minute presentation on the new Common Core standards, but that the question-and-answer period that followed devolved into angry shouting by some audience members who felt King did not allow enough time to pose questions or explain concerns.
Members of a group of parents and teachers known as Western New Yorkers for Public Education on Monday criticized King for canceling the upcoming meetings. The group had been organizing a protest that was supposed to take place right before the Williamsville meeting. They had been expecting 75 people to show up.
Chris Cerrone, a Springville parent who writes a blog on state testing and who is a teacher in Hamburg, said the questions at the forum in Poughkeepsie echoed concerns of local parents who have pulled their children out of state tests and have questioned the state’s implementation of the Common Core.
“They’re the same questions that have been raised for months now,” Cerrone said. “Unfortunately, the commissioner, I guess, just doesn’t want to hear criticism, and that really shows a lack of leadership on his part.”
Dennis Tompkins, a state Department of Education spokesman, disputed the suggestion that King was avoiding listening to criticism of state Education Department policies. Tompkins noted that King had spoken to parents, teachers and school board members during visits to schools throughout the state. In addition, Tompkins said, the Education Department has sought to reach out to parents and teachers through its engageny.org website and has held training events for teachers and administrators.
But Tompkins acknowledged that the Education Department does not typically hold open forums such as the one in Poughkeepsie in which members of the public can question King and tell him their concerns.
“He’s looking for ways to get in touch with parents more,” Tompkins said. “He just felt that the format and the circumstances surrounding these events would not be conducive to the dialogue that the parents deserve.”
The format for the five forums scheduled for this month were set by the New York State PTA.
Tompkins declined to name what groups King was referring to as “special interests” at the Poughkeepsie event, but said it was specific to “certain individuals who came with the sole purpose of disrupting the proceedings,” rather than parents or teachers generally.
“We’re going to re-examine the situation, and we’re going to find other venues, other ways, to be in contact with parents,” Tompkins said.
The state’s new curriculum standards and the exams designed to test students on the new material have drawn increasingly louder concerns from parents and teachers upset about how they are impacting public education. Last spring, dozens of parents pulled their children out of local schools during the state tests, and last week, the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda and Springville-Griffith school boards approved resolutions calling on the state to reduce its reliance on standardized tests.
Julie Francisco, a Springville parent who had planned to attend the forum next week in Williamsville, said she found King’s decision to cancel the upcoming forums “arrogant.”
She said she has become increasingly concerned that the emphasis on testing has edged out other enrichment aspects of education, such as music and art.
“He spoke at them for an hour-and-a-half,” Francisco said of King’s appearance at the Poughkeepsie meeting. “And then to not give them their chance to have their say is galling.”