Selecting New Members to the NYS Board of Regents: The Race Is On

As I am writing this morning I am watching the interviews for the Regent for the Syracuse Judicial District. The interviews for the At-Large seat will take place over the next two weeks.

I understand there are over fifty applicants – most for the At-Large vacancy.  The process is simple – send in a cover letter with a resume – there are no other qualifications. The interviews are convened by the Education and Higher Education committees of the Assembly. Any member can drop by and ask questions – the interviews run anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes.

The applicants range from retired teachers and other educators to parents and others involved in community organizations. Some have carefully spelled out agendas; others have long experience in education, and some just want to be part of the democratic process.

In the past the decisions were made by the Speaker and other senior members, the new leader of Assembly, Carl Heastie clearly allowed the electeds from within the boundaries of their Judicial District to play a major role.

The Board of Regents is a policy board; they hire the commissioner and set a direction for the department. The Board will select a chancellor from among their members at the March meeting.

I occasionally watch a CUNY Board meeting – the chancellor of CUNY races through the agenda with a nary a peep from the other board members. The Regents ask sharp. pointed questions and the discussion can be intense.

The Board of Regents is a busy and working board. The board is structured into committees, P-12, Higher Education, ACCESS (Adult Education), Arts, Special Education, Budget and the Professions. The Regents oversee public education, higher education, adult education, proprietary schools, libraries, museum and about fifty professions across the state.

The Regents meet monthly (except August) for a day and a half in Albany. The members are unpaid.

Some members serve as if they were full time; attending numerous community meetings while others hold full time jobs and spend more limited time.

While opting out of state exams and the state exams themselves have been major news items the Regents have a limited capacity to make any changes. The exams are required by federal law and federal regulations require 95% participation rates by sub-groups – with a threat of a loss of funding if a school falls below the required participation rate. The commissioner has provided each superintendent with a toolkit to use to urge parents not to opt out.

Is it the role of the Regents to get involved?

Some candidates are activists in the opt out movement and want the Regents to lead the anti-testing, anti-Common Core charge.

Others are primarily concerned with low graduation rates for English language learners – only 50% receive a diploma after 6-Year in high school. A Working Group to Improve Outcomes for Boys and Young Men of Color has created a legislative agenda to address low graduation rates for students of color, others are involved in addressing the new exams required for all teaching candidates, are the exams too difficult? Are four exams too many? Are the exams the reason for the sharp decrease in teaching candidates in college? Is the current five Regent requirement for a high school diploma too high? Should the Regents seek additional pathways?  Or, are we simply “watering down” the value of a diploma? Should the next round of testing reduce the time of the tests? Should the state seek a waiver from the feds to pilot performance tasks in lieu of universal standardized tests? Just an example of a few of the items on the table.

Regents members are bombarded with e-communications from constituents – how should each member respond?  Do the loudest voices represent the most pressing issues?  Who speaks for the English language learners, the undocumented who are afraid to speak, the poorest families who are not well-organized?

Over the last year the major educational initiatives have come from the governor; his budget included a radical change in teacher evaluation and a receivership approach to the lowest achieving schools, and, in September he appointed a Task Force who issued a 20-recommendation report – adopted by the Board.

The candidates represent a broad spectrum, Alan Singer, an active blogger and a strong supporter of the opt outs and their agenda, David Bloomfield, a Brooklyn College professor and Hechinger blogger has been a frequent critic of the current NYC administration, I understand that Elizabeth Dickey, the past president of Bank Street and before that a long time administrator at the New School University is a candidate. Also, Joyce Coppin, a district and high school superintendent in New York City, head of the Leadership Programs at CCNY and Mercy College and a member of the Congregational Council at Trinity College; both with decades of leadership roles in education; other candidates are parents active in the opt out movement.

Some argue that the Board should be more diverse – more Hispanics, a member of the handicapped community, perhaps a college student.

Ultimately the decision will be made by the Speaker, with considerable input from members.  The formal election will take place in March at a joint meeting of both houses of the legislature; however, since the Democrats far outnumber the Republicans the decision will come from the Democratic Conference.

The Board has been remarkably free of political stain – I have been attending Regents meeting for a number of years and the decisions represent the views of the members, not any political caucus. If you ask me the political affiliation of any member I would no idea from their actions on the board.

Sadly, as I listen to the candidates most have no idea of the role of a board member and many are only vaguely aware of the current policy debates. For example, calls for moving away from annual standardized testing, “If I’m elected I would …..”   The law is the law, annual testing is required. The fight to move to grade span testing was lost.

We are seeing a sharp change in the composition and leadership of the board.  In April a new chancellor and vice chancellor and seven out of seventeen board members will have two or fewer years on the board.

While the Regents are the constitutional body tasked with setting educational policy the role has been preempted by the guy on the second floor across the street in the Capital building. For the members of the legislature the Sturm und Drang of education is troublesome. Over the next two years about 15,000 bills will be introduced by the members of the legislature – a few hundred will become law; very few will deal with education. The major items under consideration by the Regents are not legislative issues – the legislature does not vote on the Common Core, or, probably understand what it is … legislators want a board member who can take the heat … legislators want to tell a constituent to call their Regent, the “issue” or “problem” is not in their domain.

I have been impressed with the dedication of the members, I don’t always agree with them; however, they are thoughtful and question sharply. Fourteen of the members represent geographic areas around the state, three are At-Large, and members for the most part are readily available to represent the pulse of their community. Unfortunately funding and the equity of funding are in the hands of the governor and the legislature and day to day school operations in the hands of mayors and elected school boards.

I wonder why the members expend so much of their time and energy – it can be an enormously frustrating job, lots of criticism, not too much praise.  In most other states, boards of education at the state level are chosen by governors and the public has no input.

We are lucky to have seventeen citizens willing to dedicate themselves to improve outcomes for all the children of our state.


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