Opinion: NY's education Regents need accountability

The Board of Regents listens to a presentation

The Board of Regents listens to a presentation during a meeting at the State Education Building in Albany, N.Y. (Oct. 21, 2013,) (Credit: AP)

The furor of parents over the Common Core and all that comes with it rocked a Manorville forum sponsored this fall by state Sen. Ken LaValle. Despite consistent pleas to slow down testing of students and implementation of the Common Core standards, the commissioner and the Regents trudge ahead. Even the Regents' announcement this week that the board will appoint a subcommittee to review the new standards' introduction came with the statement that "moving forward with Common Core is essential."

The subcommittee comes after numerous forums where those on the dais stared, scribbled notes or whispered to each other. Their responses were practiced -- which was not lost on parents. And that's the source of the furor: Parental anger is heightened because there's been no authentic response to their concerns nor substantive change. Parents' impulse to participate in their children's public education is met with the aristocratic dismissiveness of a "let them eat tests" reply.

Our democratic system is predicated on response. When officials don't respond sufficiently, constituents go to the ballot box. Elections settle arguments over competing ideologies. But in this argument, where are parents to go?


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Citizens have no voice in the selection of the Regents. The 17 members are appointed by the State Legislature to unlimited five-year terms. They are selected without fanfare or public scrutiny. The State Senate and Assembly vote on the appointments, and the majority rules. Thus, by sheer numbers, the power resides with the Assembly, which has 150 members, as opposed to the Senate's 63. According to Mike Desmond of Buffalo's NPR news station WBFO-FM, Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) controls the process and the picks, and many Senate Republicans don't bother to vote, believing they can't have a significant impact.

Regent James Dawson has been on the board since 1993. Merryl Tisch -- now the chancellor -- has been a member since 1996. Regents serve without pay, but they also serve without accountability. They aren't accountable at the ballot box, so parents are left without a means to create change.

For decades, the Regents behaved like trustees, engaging districts in the change process. The state Education Department sought out superintendents for counsel. Even the last wave of reforms, under Commissioner Richard Mills, was slowly phased in. Those of us in the schools understood what was expected and had time to prepare our teachers and students.

Under Commissioner John King, however, the Regents have pushed change at breathless speed. Although some of this is due to requirements for federal Race to the Top funding, change in New York has been accelerated by design.

The Regents have hired advisers at an unprecedented pace. Starting in 2010, the commissioner and Regents have taken counsel from more than 20 hand-picked people who are funded by $14 million from private foundations, including the Gates Foundation and the General Electric Foundation. Smaller foundations, such as New York City's Robin Hood and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, have provided generous donations as well. Two large donations have come from the foundations of two of the Regents themselves, Tisch and Charles Bendit. The public should remember that foundations have their own agendas, and few million-dollar gifts come with no strings attached.

Shortly, the terms of four Regents will be up. Yet, as controversial as the education reforms have been, the public will have no say about extending those terms or finding new candidates. Perhaps it's time, instead, that the Regents are elected. In nearly all districts in the state, elected school board members are in charge. They are accountable to the public and are therefore more responsive. If they ignore parental concerns, they don't serve for long.

Even under the present system, the legislature indirectly influences policy by whom it appoints, and re-appoints as Regents. The time has come for the public to insist that the appointment of Regents be more than pro forma. The fate of a generation of students is at stake.

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