THERE WAS AN ELECTION in state government this week. Not the kind with TV ads extolling candidates who’ll cut every tax and save us from big spenders who’d outlaw hamsters. This one was for four unpaid jobs as members of the Board of Regents.
There was a local candidate for one of the seats on the Board of Regents, Regina Rose, a retired teacher and former member of the Ichabod Crane Board of Education. Ms. Rose did not win the seat, though she was qualified. So were the other candidates. And, no, you didn’t forget to go to the polls Tuesday to cast your ballot. The public doesn’t elect regents.
Regents are chosen by the full state legislature–the Assembly and Senate–convened in a joint session. A majority of both houses voting as one body decides. The Assembly has more members than the Senate, and the Assembly has a large Democratic majority, which makes the speaker of the Assembly the most powerful player in the appointment process, more powerful than the governor.
This year’s election of regents was unusually high profile because of the simmering controversy over the Common Core learning standards. The conflict surrounding the Common Core curriculum has complex causes. The standards are not a federal government requirement, but most states have adopted them. The standards aren’t tests, but testing is a key part of measuring student progress. Test outcomes will also be used to evaluate the performance of teachers. Some teachers are enthusiastic about the standards, many others share the bewilderment of parents who are struggling to help their kids learn this new curriculum. And there’s federal money involved, hundreds of millions.
Last fall there was a bitter confrontation near Poughkeepsie between parents and teachers in a school auditorium audience and the state commissioner of education, John King, Jr., who became by turns defensive and petulant in his attempt to promote the Common Core program. The commissioner is chosen by the Board of Regents.
That clash, which was recorded on video, ignited the Common Core debate, suddenly making it a statewide political issue. It politicized the educational standards debate in ways not seen here in years, if ever.
In the past state Senate Republicans boycotted the election of regents because they had no voice in the selection. But this year they were joined by some upstate Democrats in voting no to express displeasure with the way Common Core has been handled so far. It focused extraordinary media attention on the appointment of regents.
The candidate chosen to fill the vacant seat on the Board of Regents also sought by Ms. Rose is a lawyer and judge, quite possibly the best qualified candidate for the post. What benefit is it to her or to the education of our children that it’s also clear she is from an Assembly district in Sullivan County represented by a Democrat, while Ms. Rose comes from a district represented by Republican Steve McLaughlin, a vocal critic of Common Core? Ms. Rose’s candidacy was reported by the Times Union newspaper in Albany as having been backed by a group “fighting much of the Common Core rollout.” Are the other Board of Regents members afraid to hear that sentiment in their deliberations?
The Board of Regents should not be treated like a fragile institution ready to crumble when faced with reasoned dissent. It isn’t. But the regents do face a decision crucial to the board’s future, not to mention the future of public school students.
Commissioner King is an educator of exceptional skill and accomplishment. It’s not surprising the regents chose him as commissioner. But his talents do not extend to a mastery of the harsh, unforgiving politics of the state capitol. He has left the board adrift in political Albany. That is unacceptable.
The Board of Regents is an indispensible institution. Its value in setting educational policy depends on its reputation for independence. The people expect it will put the needs of public education ahead of all else, especially politics.
The rancor over Common Core has strained that public trust, as the result of the commissioner’s missteps. Regardless of whether he brought this on himself or is mostly a victim of circumstance, he is the person who bears responsibility for the shortcomings of the Common Core curriculum.
There are common sense proposals now for correcting the flaws in the state’s handling of the Common Core curriculum. The longer Commissioner King stays, the harder it will be to repair the damage done to the Board of Regents let alone new learning standards.