Democracy can be contentious, awkward, frustrating and, at times, dizzying.
The fifty-four members of the Constitutional Convention, slaveholders and abolitionists, Northerners and Southerners, from large and small states, plantation owners and farmers, highly educated and not, argued, debated, reviled, left and returned, and, during the steamy months of the summer of 1787 wrote our constitution.
The Federalist and the Anti-Federalists (the “pros” and the “cons”) campaigned in the fall and winter across the thirteen colonies as voters grappled with the proposed new system of government. Madison, Hamilton and John Jay wrote eighty plus op ed essays that were published in the newspapers of the day urging support of the new constitution (Read Federalist # 10: “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection,” here). [An aside: can you imagine the NY Post or the NY Daily News publishing an essay such as Federalist # 10? Or, our citizenry reading it? Can it be reduced to 140 characters?].
Albany is in the midst of end-of-session angst, the threatening, rambunctious infighting that may or may not produce legislation on a range of seemingly intractable issues: rent control, school tax credits, mayoral control, teacher evaluation and charter schools.
Getting to the endgame is not pretty.
19th century German Chancellor Bismarck often quoted comment is an apt description: “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”
The Board of Regents, although constitutionally the education policy-making body in the state, has never viewed itself as a “political body.” The Regents Room is a throwback to a former century, or two. In the center of the room is a long table, the seventeen members of the Regents sit at the table, in seniority order, the Chancellor at the head of the table, flanked by the commissioner, alongside the table are three rows of seats for staff, press and guests. Hanging on the walls are paintings of former chancellors, all men, all white, and considering the Board was chartered in 1794, dressed in garb appropriate to their era.
The Board members are “elected” for five year terms by a joint meeting of the two houses of the state legislature, and, considering the current large majority of Democrats in the Assembly, the selection reflects the majority.
To be selected as a regent was an honorific, an honor for service rendered. The members were business men, lawyers, college professors, “pillars of the community,” who trekked to Albany monthly to discuss and approve a recommendation of the commissioner. Commissioners, chosen by the board, had worked their way up through the ranks, commissioners were chosen from among the ranks of state superintendents.
With the exception of Saul Cohen, former President of Queens College, the Regents rubber stamped, approved decisions, most of which has already been made by the commissioner and the chancellor. Cohen, who served a member from 1994-2010, was frequently an outspoken critic of Board actions, a lone voice.
With the election of Betty Rosa, followed by Kathleen Cashin the nature of the discussions began to change. Rosa and Cashin, both New York City superintendents with long and highly successful service began to ask the “hard questions,” and actually publicly voted against the policies of the new commissioner. King, only in his late thirties, possessed impressive degrees; however, his experience was limited to charter schools. Increasingly King, with the support of the Board, pushed the Arne Duncan agenda. While Board members may have felt uncomfortable only Rosa and Cashin actually challenged King at open Regents meetings.
The quiescent Board increasingly became the center of attention.
Newspaper coverage, blog posts, op eds and editorials and a rising uneasiness among parents that rose and rose and bubbled to a boiling cauldron. The Regents were oblivious, after all, they weren’t politicians (said with a sneer); they were “policy-makers.”
Of course when Regent Bennett cudgeled his colleagues to extend the length of charter renewals in Buffalo, over the recommendation of the commissioner, that wasn’t “politics,” in fact, it was the “good, old boy” politics that characterized the Regents.
In March the legislature acted: the two must senior members of the Regents were dumped and four new Regents selected, three former superintendents, a college professor/school nurse, all women, and, three women of color.
Regents Rosa and Cashin now had four allies.
In the waning days of the budget process the governor forced changes in the education law: extending new teacher probation from three to four years, setting in process a “school receivership,” a la Massachusetts, the poorest performing schools or school districts could be handed over to a “receiver” under provisions of the new law, and, yet another change in the teacher-principal evaluation law, the third in four years.
At the May Board meeting the acting commissioner presented a 56-page draft of recommendations for the implementation of the law, with considerable pushback, almost entirely from the six, to use Diane Ravich’s encomium: the “dissidents.”
The “dissident six” circulated a set of Guidelines to their colleagues, asked them to sign on, and, at the June Meeting offered the Guidelines as a substitute for the revised draft from the acting commissioner.
A three-hour, at times heated, at times uncomfortable discussion ensued, many of the Guidelines had been included in the new draft; however, a key portion was not changed, the percentage of student test scores to be used in computing the new Matrix.
The “six” forced their colleagues to vote publicly on all the items and, at the “official” Board meeting at the end of the session, once again, a recorded formal vote.
The Regents moved from policy-makers, above the fray, a comfortable group of seventeen “wise men” (and women) who succumbed to the policy directives of the commissioner and the chancellor to seventeen representatives of the legislature and the public.
A legislator told me: “Education policy should be left to the experts, the Regents, that’s why we select them.”
Regent Tisch: “When education policy becomes part of the budget process we have neither education nor policy.”
Regent Brown: “Tests created to assess student growth should not be used to assess teacher quality.”
A new commissioner will arrive in a few weeks, a new commissioner and a new set of rules. No longer will the commissioner solely drive policy; no longer will the Board debate and meekly approve initiatives of the commissioner; the Regents and the commissioner, of necessary, will become active partners. The Regents are no longer immune from the world of politics, immune from the voices in communities around the state.
The governor has clearly been spanked by the public; his approval ratings diving, no doubt, to an abiding anger over his meddling in education. Teacher-principal evaluation was not broken. “Receiverships” will be an albatross for the governor; no one thinks the new law is workable.
The legislature sent a clear message: education is the domain of the Regents and the commissioner, we expect them to listen to parents and teachers, we expect them to be transparent, we understand the enormous complexities of the world of education, and we will select Regents in whom we have confidence.
Regents meetings should be an exchange of ideas, differences in opinions, at times conflicts, and the process may be uncomfortable, democracy is uncomfortable. I am hopeful that a new commissioner and a far more activist Board, supported by the legislature, will begin to address the core problems confronting students and their families, teachers and the state.