ALBANY – There are few events at the Capitol that define “rubber stamp” more than the confirmation of members to the Board of Regents, the state’s powerful education policy-setting panel.
The Common Core – and how students are being tested based on the new learning standards – has changed all of that. Today’s vote on the floor of the Assembly involving the filling of four seats on the Board of Regents comes after months of internal squabbling and a very public fight.
Now, this vote will be aimed at sending the full Regents board and the state Education Department a strong message about how the state’s Common Core program was implemented.
“This year, it’s all different. The Regents process has become a referendum on Education Commissioner (John) King and his faulty rollout of the Common Core,” said Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo.
“There’s tremendous frustration with the implementation of the Common Core, not the standards themselves,” said Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer, a Westchester County Democrat who represents Yonkers. “Some people want to send a message and some people want to go forward and make sure the Regents are responsive to parents, and I think there’s a great feeling they’ve not been responsive enough.”
Today’s Regents vote comes as a commission named by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday evening released its list of ideas to improve the Common Core, some of which could make it into the state budget talks that are under way.
The nonbinding ideas, some of which already have support in both houses and are likely to be part of the state budget set to be adopted later this month, include bans on certain standardized tests for students in prekindergarten through second grade, phasing in higher test score demands for Regents exams while the program is being implemented, capping time for test preparation to ensure that students are not spending their days being taught to the test, and giving parents more online tools to help learn about the demands of Common Core. The proposals, as lawmakers want, include new protection of student data to address privacy concerns and halting the state’s contract with data-collection provider inBloom.
If history is a guide, today’s reappointments to the Regents – a 17-member board with no salary that has the influence of dictating education policy to public school districts across the state, as well as a role in everything from university policies and adult education to the licensing of everyone from dentists to interior designers – would sail through with little notice.
But parents, teachers and others have lit up the telephones in state legislators’ offices for months now over Common Core, and those legislators are all up for re-election this fall. Adding to the intrigue is that the Assembly Democrats do not completely control the process as they have in the past whenever there was a Regents vacancy.
Nominations to state agencies, authorities and other boards go through the State Senate, except in the case of the Regents, whose members are appointed by a joint session of both houses. That means Democrats – and especially Assembly Democrats, given their numbers – have controlled the selection process because they have such a large majority when partisan membership from both houses are factored in.
But the Assembly Democrats have a bit of a problem this year. Their ranks in the 150-member house are down to just 99 members, caused, in part, by a number of vacancies brought about by former lawmakers going to other jobs, getting convicted or, in the case of former Assemblyman Dennis H. Gabryszak, a Cheektowaga Democrat, leaving under a cloud of sexual-harassment allegations.
It takes 107 votes in the Legislature as a whole to approve a member of the Regents.
That has put the regular Senate Democratic conference, which often toils away in Albany with little power given their minority party status in the Senate, with more influence than Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, is used to ceding away in naming Regents.
“There’s no question they need our votes,” said Sen. Bill Perkins, D-Harlem, who said he hasn’t determined what he will do.
Four Senate Democrats, including Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, are already on record saying they won’t support any of the four incumbents Regents up for reappointment – at-large members James E. Cottrell, of Brooklyn; Wade S. Norwood, of Rochester; Christine D. Cea, of Staten Island; and James O. Jackson, of the Albany area.
To many longtime Assembly Democrats, the Board of Regents is their body. Assembly Democrats have traditionally picked them. Indeed, Senate Republicans in some years boycotted even showing up for what was wasted votes since they had no say in the selection process. Some Assembly Democrats privately say the Regents and King have put them in an embarrassing position with voters back home.
Typically, there are no challengers to members being nominated to the Regents; they are selected by a combination of backroom dealing, local political equations and the heavy influence of Silver. Last year, there were two Regents vacancies and only two nominations. This year, for the four openings, 20 people applied, and a record number of rank-and-file lawmakers turned out for interviews with candidates in the Assembly Parlor’s Gothic Revival-style conference room on the Capitol’s third floor.
New candidates were asked how they were going to be hands-on and drive a more board-driven style of leadership. The four people seeking reappointments were battered with questions about their role in the Common Core rollout, the answers to which did not go over well with some lawmakers.
Ryan said lawmakers want an activist Regents board. “I think the Regents in the last years have it backwards where they think they report to the commissioner,” Ryan said, “so at the very least, this process has shaken up the Regents, and that’s a positive thing.” Ryan openly questioned how the Buffalo area’s representative to the Regents, Chancellor Emeritus Robert M. Bennett, of the Town of Tonawanda, has been reappointed over the last 19 years without any opposition. “That’s a long time without anybody else having a contest of ideas,” Ryan said. “… For 19 years, we have rubber-stamped our Regent, and after today, you will see a renewed emphasis on the Regents because we realize how important they are, and if they’re not paying attention and they’re not doing their job, the whole education system could run off the tracks.”
Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch on Monday declined a request for an interview, with an aide saying that today’s vote was a legislative matter.
While the Regents recently made changes to Common Core to appease some critics, Senate Education Committee Chairman John J. Flanagan, R-East Northport, said that it has not been enough for many parents and that there is anger within the Legislature that the Education Department did not seek waivers for certain testing requirements from the federal government as the program is implemented – something granted to California only last week.
While he said the Regents are an active board with high attendance rates, there is a frustration that the panel does not react to outside suggestions, lawmakers say. For certain, the public, and especially parents, know that there is now a Board of Regents.
“If you and I spoke five years ago and we brought up the Regents, people would think we were talking about a test,” Flanagan said. “Now when you say Regents, everyone knows we’re talking about people who affect your life.”