Electing a Regent: How the Legislature Selects the Education Policy Makers in New York State

New York State has an unusual school governance configuration. In most states school governance boards are appointed by the governor and/or the state legislature, education policy flows from the executive and the legislature, a wholly political process. California elects the State Superintendent of Public Instruction in a statewide election. The New York State constitution created the Board of Regents in the late 18th century and the Board is “elected” by a joint meeting of the state legislature. The executive, the governor, has no role in the selection of the board. Currently the board has seventeen members, one for each of the thirteen judicial districts in the state and four at-large positions. The regents are a policy board, the members are unpaid, unstaffed, and serve a five year term.

For decades the actions of the regents was barely covered by the press. The only news article reported the score on annual grades four and eight tests, a list of schools ranked by score, an article about the lowest scoring school, usually in the poorest section of the Bronx and an article about the highest scoring school in a lovely neighborhood in Queens.

Over the last decade education has moved from the back pages to the front pages. The virtually unknown members of the regents are now in the forefront, tasked with resolving the monumental educational issues of the day.

Although the governor has no statutory authority he has dominated the creation of education policy. Through the budget process (attaching non-budget issues to the budget) the governor has changed the face of education; from laws favorable to charter schools, to increasing the probationary period of teachers, to a dense teacher evaluation rubric, a system to move struggling schools to supervision by not-for-profits, and, in September the governor appointed a task force that issued a report in December with twenty highly specific recommendations (See report here).

The selection process in the legislature is currently underway for two upcoming vacancies on the Board of Regents. Chancellor Tisch and Vice Chancellor Bottar are not seeking another term.

There are no qualifications, anyone can apply, and every applicant is interviewed. One of the two vacancies is for the at-large position and another for the position in the Syracuse judicial district.

For decades the members of the board can best be described as “pillars of the community;” businessmen, attorneys, college professors; actual teachers and/or superintendents were rarely members of the board.

The number of applicants demonstrates the increased interest in education. There are about thirty-five applicants for the at-large position. For the first time the interviews are webcast, the chairs and ranking members of the Education and the Higher Education Committees and a changing number of legislators spent all day Tuesday and Wednesday this week interviewing the aspirants.

Over the past five years the board has undergone a dramatic change.

There are now six board members who served as superintendents, (Cashin, Chin, Rosa and Young from NYC, Johnson from Westchester and Ouderkirk from upstate).

The current applicants constitute mostly current or former teachers, principals and college teachers with one former superintendent  plus a few parent advocates, a pharmacist, a dentist, an attorney, a member of a charter school board, local school district board members, and a few others.

Applicants begin with an opening statement, some recount/restate their resume, some make lengthy philosophical statements, and a few address the current major issues before the board. The legislators are polite, sometimes asking two or three questions and moving to the next candidate, with a few candidates, an intense discussion. The legislators occasionally engaged the candidate in specific issues that are on the board agenda with many of the legislators asking questions.

The legislator interviewers are a shifting group, they come and go, there are concurrent committee meetings, meetings with constituents and the general session going on during the time of the interviews.

After the interviews: how are regents actually selected?

(A quote attributed to 19th century German chancellor Otto von Bismarck: Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made)

At the judicial district level the local electeds play a major role. Last year, the Westchester members held open interviews for all the candidates for their judicial district apart from the formal interviews. The meetings were well attended. After long discussions the members coalesced behind one candidate.

For the first time in memory the legislature did not reappoint long time members of the board.

Two years ago a candidate appeared who wasn’t on the list, a brief interview, and an appointment a few days later.

The process is open and transparent; however, it is a political process.

Over the term of a legislative session about 15,000 bills will be introduced, only a few hundred will become law. The leadership of the houses of the legislature, the Speaker of the Assembly, a Democrat, and the Majority Leader of the Senate, a Republican, are the gatekeepers. The Assembly is dominated by the Democrats; over 100 of the 150 members of the Assembly are Democrats. The Speaker appoints committee chairs, and, the committees determine which bills move forward. Many bills are introduced by a legislator without co-sponsors, other have scores of co-sponsors. Ultimately the leadership determines whether a bill moves to a vote.  In the real world of politics outside interests, lobbyists, advocates, unions, business leaders, all influence the flow of legislation.

The same external pressures and internal politics that influence legislation will influence the selection process.

Among the forty plus candidates many are educators who want to serve on the board, some have lengthy resumes, others are currently involved in the policy-making/implementation process at the local level.

The gatekeeper, the Speaker of the Assembly will make the final decision.

At the judicial district level, the local electeds play the major role. For the at-large position, the Speaker will make the decision probably after discussion with the senior leadership.

General questions for the “selectors”

How do you select from among the many candidates, some with extensive educational experience?

Should the legislature seek a diverse board, and, how do you define diverse?  Ethnicity, age, outside experience, special expertise, etc.

How important is deep experience in leadership of schools and school districts?

Each candidate was asked:

What are your views on privacy of student data? (All wanted strict rules on security for student data)

Questions that were frequently asked of candidates:

What percent of a teacher evaluation should be based on student performance? (Usually the answer was none)

Does testing have any place in teacher evaluation? (From “sort of,” to “no” to “of course”)

How can we make special education “better”?  (No one had a clear answer)

What is authentic learning and how do you measure it? (All agreed: complex but worth exploring)

Have you taught in a public school? (Either a proud “yes” or a reason why other experience was relevant)

In my view many of the interviewees do not understand the role of a regent. Candidates were passionate, clearly highly dedicated and caring; however, “too much testing,” is not a policy. The newly passed ESSA law requires testing in grades 3 – 8, the use of portfolios or authentic assessment is interesting, currently not an option under the law. The new law requires that state programs utilizing federal funds are “evidence based,”

ESSA is the first federal education law to define the term “evidence-based” and to distinguish between activities with “strong,” “moderate,” and “promising” support based on the strength of existing research. Crucially, for many purposes the law also treats as evidence-based a fourth category comprising activities that have a research-based rationale but lack direct empirical support—provided, that is, that they are accompanied by “ongoing efforts to examine the effects” of the activity on important student outcomes.

Only one or two of the applicants had any understanding of the term “evidence-based” as well as actually designing evidence-based programs for scrutiny by the feds or other organizations.

Special education is heavily regulated by both federal and state law and regulations, “ideas” are not policy and regents members (or commissioners) cannot snap their fingers and change the rules or regulations.

It may very well be unfair to test English language learners after only one year in the country, it is also the law.

Another common question was how to improve the preparation of prospective teachers; only one of the applicants knew that CAEP – the Council on the Accreditation of Educator Preparation had rigorous standards that will drive teacher preparation programs across the nation. Only one candidate referenced that “ideas” for programs have a dollar cost – and asked who will provide the additional dollars.

Only a few of the candidates directly addressed the lowest achieving cohort of schools. The candidates who were teachers, with a few exceptions, came from high achieving districts.

The selectors must decide: should the next regent have extensive experience in school district leadership and have grappled with the complexities of implementation within the political constraints.

Do teacher candidates who are union members have an inherent conflict of interest?

For endless decades “wonderful” program after “wonderful” program has not resulted in measureable progress – the reality: zip codes determine academic progress. New York State is one of the national leaders in inequality of funding.  Not a single candidate addressed the funding disparity across the state.

In a few months the board will have new leadership and six of the board members will have been selected within the last year. The commissioner has served only six months.

The interviews ended with the announcement that the selection process will take about two to three weeks.

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One response to “Electing a Regent: How the Legislature Selects the Education Policy Makers in New York State

  1. In this day and age, if the question of diversity has to be raised in terms of selecting board memebers to an educational state board, or for that matter any board in the corporate world, then I would have to lose respect for that person or group who raised such an question?

    Like

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