Over the next few weeks I expect lengthy articles parsing the three and a half years of the commissionership of John King. Did he begin the reconstruction of education in New York State or has he derailed the education system for years to come?
For some the primary function of the education bureaucracy in the state has been to defend and maintain the status quo and only nibble around the edges of renewal, King was racing down the path of “disruptive change,” deposing the vested interests: the school boards, superintendents, unions and wresting away control of policy decisions. For others King was simply the clone of Arne Duncan, ingratiating himself with the Secretary of Education, trying to impose unproven policies that erode rather than improve education.
In virtually every other nation education is the responsibility of the national government; our educational system is deeply rooted state and local governments. The Tenth Amendment is clear: “…powers not therein delegated should be reserved to the several States,” education is a power delegated to the states, which means the 14,000 elected schools boards and fifty state departments of education. In California the state superintendent of public instruction is elected in a statewide election, in other states appointed boards select a commissioner or a governor appoints a state schools leader. In New York State the Board of Regents are elected by a joint meeting of the state legislature and the Board selects a commissioner, the governor has no statutory role.
In New York State the commissioner has limited authority. Teachers, principals and superintendents do not work for the commissioner; they work for the seven hundred elected school boards. The commissioner does not have the authority to remove a school board; The East Ramapo School Board is essentially raping the school district, moving public funds to a parallel parochial school district. In a sharply worded report Hank Greenberg, the State Monitor wrote,
“What I have found is that you have a board deeply influenced and informed by the community from which they’ve come — so concerned about the children of that community that it has blinded them to the needs of the entire community,”
Nonetheless, he accused the board of “abysmal” fiscal management and said the district was teetering “on the precipice of fiscal disaster.”
In spite of his judgment he acknowledges the commissioner is limited in his remedy, “…he proposed that the legislature pass a law appointing a fiscal monitor with the power to overrule the school board’s and the superintendent’s decisions.”
In the past commissioners were hired from among the superintendents around the state and they had a low profile as did the Board of Regents. In the mid-nineties the regents, after debate that lingered over months decided to phase out the local diploma and move to a single regents diploma, the full phase-in was delayed time and time again, it took twelve years to fully phase out the local diploma.
Under King the agenda was driven from the office of the commissioner with the regents being “managed” by the commissioner. Virtually every major policy was initiated by the commissioner, after some discussion the regents, with a few members occasionally objecting rubber stamped the decisions of the commissioner.
Opposition grew, from the teacher union, from superintendents, principals and teachers, and, from parents across the state.
A Board of Regents selected by the legislature seems to be following the dictates of their hire, the commissioner. The governor, with no statutory role, selected a 25-member commission which held meetings all over the state, and after a lengthy report, nothing changed. The governor intervened to ease the impact of state tests, to delay the implementation of new prospective teacher exams. The governor has expressed his displeasure with the current teacher evaluation plan.
Should the governor select the commissioner?
This would require changes in the law and perhaps a change in the state constitution. In New York City the school board was appointed jointly by the borough presidents and the mayor; the mayor claimed credit for successes and blamed the chancellor, the schools leader, for failures. The move to mayoral control in New York City concentrated responsibility in the office of the mayor. Reading scores rise, or fall, the mayor is responsible. Should the governor bear all the responsibility for success, or lack thereof in the schools of New York State?
Others argue that the current system removes politics, governors will make decisions in his/her self-interest, political decisions not decisions in the best interest of students; however, can 700 school districts, ranging from the million plus children in one district to the hundreds of poor, rural districts scattered around the state effectively manage their schools? The property tax-based system results in staggering inequities, the high-wealth districts with high achieving schools spend far more dollars per student than low wealth districts and districts with lower achieving students: New York State is the outlier; most other states allocate funds according to need.
Should the 700 schools district be converted to regional districts, perhaps reflecting the BOCES districts?
Should all school funding be driven by a state formula, not by local wealth and local taxpayers?
Local communities are strongly supportive of their elected local school boards, even though 700 school boards with 700 superintendents and 700 local bureaucracies are an archaic structure. We have school districts with a wide range of advanced placement classes, elective courses with new sparking buildings and schools that can barely offer the minimum number of classes to meet graduation requirements in crumbling building.
For too many parents the governor, the commissioner and the Board of Regents are the enemy. Leading begins with building consensus, not “disrupting” in spite of the wishes of the populace. If Buffalo or Rochester or Syracuse or East Ramapo or Hempstead are abusing their authority, or internally bickering or simply not succeeding in addressing the core issues should the regents or the commissioner have the authority to intervene? When the legislature did allow the commissioner to intervene directly in the Roosevelt School District the district continued to stumble, does the state education department have the ability to lead school districts?
The governor sniping at the teachers union or probably forcing out the commissioner does not address the core education issues: Who should lead our schools? Who should be responsible for the decisions? How should the public, parents and taxpayers, play a role in the process?
Commissioners should not be carrying the Washington agenda, should not be immune from the criticism of the public, should not “disrupt” rather than lead by collaboration. On the other hand we cannot be wedded to failed policies; we cannot be too comfortable, too wedded to policies and practices that have not worked to decades.
Now is the time for a debate on the future of school leadership, school funding and school districts in New York State.