The Board of Regents Convene With a Contentious Agenda and the Ominous Shadow of the Governor

Wednesday morning the seventeen members of the Board of Regents and the newly selected commissioner will convene in the ornate Regents Room to begin the 15-16 school year. Oddly the agenda, to a large extent, has been set “across the street,” on the second floor of the Capital building, the executive offices of the governor.

Education policy for two centuries was set by the members of the regents with significant input from the commissioner. Commissioners worked their way up the ladder, from teacher to principal to superintendent to commissioner; all that changed in the last few years. David Steiner came from the university and John King had no public school experience, in fact, only limited experience in the world of charter schools. The newly selected commissioner returns us to the world of experienced educators.

In the current convoluted landscape of education the governor has effectively replaced the regents: adoption of the Common Core State Standards, a massive labyrinthine principal/teacher evaluation system, the receivership of struggling schools have been set in legislation by the governor with the regents being asked to set regulations in place.

The unpaid, un-staffed members of the regents are “elected” by a joint meeting of the NYS legislature. In reality the democrats select the members; there are far more democrats than republicans in the combined houses. In the last session the legislature dumped two of the most senior members of the regents and selected four new members (three incumbents were re-elected, there were two vacancies and two regents replaced); three former school superintendents and one nurse educator (the State Education Department is in charge of all schools, pre-k through college, all museums and libraries and the professions).

The four new members and two second-term regents members have formed a caucus to oppose the approval of the governor’s new matrix principal/teacher evaluation plan (3012-d); the debate will be lively.

The regents will approve regulations for the completely untried receivership law; if low performing schools fail to make progress, as defined in the regulations, the school may be removed from the district and placed under the supervision of a receiver who has sweeping power. (See Regents agenda here).

Not only has the governor seized control of the education agenda the feds have been the agenda-setter for all of the states. The feds require that after being in the country for one year all English Language Learners in Grades 3-8 must be tested regardless of their English language skills. The feds denied the NYS waiver request and the regents and the commissioner are asking the feds to reconsider.

The regents are forming a working group to discuss the pass/fail rates on the new Common Core Regents exams; we are currently in year three of the eight year phase-in of Common Core Regents; the grades are currently scaled to keep pass-fail rates at the same level as before the Common Core: are students making adequate progress in passing the new Regents, and, if not, how should the regents members respond?

Regent Cashin is highlighting the new testing regimen for prospective teachers who are required to pass four exams at a cost of about $1,000; the exams are timed and computer-based: are the exams accurate predictors of success? Are the high failure rates the result of selecting the wrong candidates, faulty college curriculum or simply poorly crafted exams? In an era of sharply declining enrollments in college teacher education programs the poorly designed Pearson-created exams should not be an unnecessary impediment.

While the funding of schools is the responsibility of the governor and the legislature the 2% property tax cap is resulting in drastic cuts in services in low wealth districts, of which there are several hundred located in rural districts with declining revenues. The regents can highlight and recommend changes to the “other side of the street.”

How will the regents address the large numbers of Students with Disabilities who are unable to “pass” grades 3-8 tests and unable to achieve the safety net requirements on the Regents exams? Should the regents create alternative pathways to graduation? Portfolios?

In some schools English Language learners are making progress similar to all other students while in others the majority of students are graduating at extremely low rates: Why? Higher or lower levels of instruction? Better professional development? Better designed instructional models?

Educational decisions, as the state constitution intended, should be made by the Board of Regents. Hopefully the governor will move away from his senseless policies that have antagonized parents and teachers across the state.

Far reaching education policies crafted behind closed doors by invisible staffers is not a fruitful path to better education. The two hundred thousand op-outers will grow and grow; the angry electorate will continue to grow.

Hopefully the governor will rethink his ideas and the legislature will continue to select regent members willing to challenge the governor as well as collaboratively develop approaches to address the core issues confronting children and families across the state.

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