A Throne of Contention
In New York State, from the time a child is born until he grows old and dies, he will be touched, almost daily, by the policies of the New York state board of regents.
The nurses and technicians who care for the infant are licensed by the board. The public and private schools that educate the child--from pre-kindergarten through postgraduate--fall under its aegis.
If he wants to be an engineer or an accountant, a pharmacist or an interior designer, or just about any other kind of professional, the New Yorker will have to meet the regents' standards.
The library books the person reads, the public-television shows he watches, the museum exhibits he sees all reflect the guiding hand of the regents.
Unique among state boards of education, the New York state board of regents reaches into virtually every crevice of education and culture in that diverse state of 18 million people.
But this cradle-to-grave approach, while lauded by many as the ideal education-policymaking model, has come under ever-increasing pressure as the regents and the state education department grapple with their massive precollegiate education-reform effort, the New Compact for Learning.
Coupled with the internal challenges are those being exerted from the outside. Indeed, this venerable 210-year-old institution has come under attack in recent months by the Governor, lawmakers, and segments of the education community itself.
In what observers say has become an unprecedented series of attacks, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and some lawmakers have called for the board's abolition, while legislators have readied bills that would alter the structure and impose new standards on an institution long revered for its integrity.
But this latest round of assaults is hardly the first the regents have had to endure. Over the years, they have been subjected to the traditional backbiting and second-guessing that powerful government bodies invariably attract. Still, the regents' new education-reform initiative has emerged as a lightning rod for much of the prevailing criticism aimed in their direction.
"Even the regents have had to succumb to what I would call the new politics of education,'' says Michael D. Usdan, the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington. "Education is no longer a separate, insulated, isolated structure.''
Others counsel against meddling with an agency once presided over by the likes of John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, Washington Irving, and Theodore Roosevelt. A structure esteemed for putting in place the standard-setting regents' examinations. A structure strong enough to withstand the pressure of being the only state board to bar Whittle Communications' Channel One news show from classrooms.
"That system has been in place 200 years,'' says Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "We're not talking about something that was cooked up two to three years ago.''
A King's Beginning
The New York legislature established the board of regents in 1784 to govern and revitalize King's College--now Columbia University--which had been shut down during the Revolutionary War.
Lawmakers created the board in part to safeguard King's College from the liberal influences of its neighbors to the north and south, Yale University and the College of New Jersey, now Princeton.
By the end of the 18th century, the regents were expected to foster the growth of and govern other colleges, in addition to overseeing the operations of Columbia. So preoccupied were they with Columbia, however, they neglected other elements of their mission, according to A Popular History of the Origins of the Regents of the University of the State of New York, by Bruce B. Detlefsen.
"Practically nothing that happened at Columbia ... was too inconsequential to warrant the regents' rapt attention,'' wrote Detlefsen, the assistant to a former commissioner of education, Ewald B. Nyquist. "They managed the college's property holdings. They raised money. They devised the curriculum. They chose the faculty. They even dealt with such problems as what the college janitor should do and at what salary, and how much firewood and how many kitchen utensils Columbia needed.''
It took but a few years for lawmakers to adopt new legislation establishing separate boards of trustees for each institution and giving the regents oversight of all of higher education. To this day, the regents maintain general oversight and specific program approval of the state's public and private colleges and universities.
Until the early 1800's, precollegiate education was largely ignored in New York. But when the legislature began providing state aid, it selected a state superintendent to run elementary and secondary schools. By the middle of the century, the lawmakers established a department of public instruction, which was often at odds with the regents.
During his tenure as Governor, Theodore Roosevelt argued to unify the department and the regents. In 1904, then-President Roosevelt saw the two brought together, giving the regents legal authority for elementary and secondary education as well.
Since its creation, the board of regents has continued to expand its base. Operating under the auspices of the University of the State of New York--which exists in a titular rather than a physical sense--the 16-member volunteer lay board is responsible for the state library, the state museum, and the state archives. The regents also charter nonprofit libraries, museums, historical societies, and public-broadcasting stations.
They license and discipline all professions save physicians, who are disciplined by the health department, and lawyers, who are licensed and disciplined through the judicial system.
They're even responsible for adult education and for helping people with disabilities prepare for and find gainful employment.
During the past four years, though, the board's overriding mission has been to put forward its New Compact for Learning.
The New Compact for Learning serves as a guide for the state's education-reform initiatives. Based on a system of what students should know and be able to do, it includes the development of curriculum frameworks and authentic assessments, shared decisionmaking and parental involvement at the local level, and a school-to-work component for all students but specifically for those who choose not to go on to four-year postsecondary institutions.
As conceived, the compact would give school districts wide latitude to meet the regents' goals of educating all children for the 21st century and instilling in them a strong sense of citizenship. To carry out the compact, the board of regents has reorganized the education department into field-office teams with the goal of helping rather than policing districts. And the regents expect every division within the state department to help.
Public-broadcasting stations have aired a series called "New York Learns,'' which sets out to explain the compact and elicit feedback.
The state museum and the Albany school district have forged a partnership that sends scientists into the schools and welcomes students into the museum. The museum also offers an after-school club for latchkey children.
Librarians from the state library visit mobile-home parks over the summer to reach the youngsters of migrant workers.
The state archives have developed a program on how to use historic records as teaching tools.
"We welcome the compact because it looks beyond the schools' walls to other resources for learning,'' says Carole F. Huxley, the deputy commissioner for cultural education.
"What we're trying to do is free people to do what they think will improve the educational outcomes of our students,'' says Walter Cooper, the chairman of the regents' elementary, middle, and secondary committee. "We know we can't educate anybody from Albany.''
But the New Compact for Learning has attracted its share of critics. Some accuse the regents of moving too slowly. They say they've become distracted by irrelevant matters and bogged down in minutiae. Others fear standards will suffer if districts are allowed to call their own shots.
Perhaps most damning, though, is the charge that the compact is hopelessly flawed because it is vague and rudderless. At a State Senate committee hearing last fall, one of the regents' own, J. Edward Meyer, complained that the compact was an "amorphous concept.''
"It will be no panacea to allow the New York City school system to do their own thing,'' Meyer asserted. That denunciation prompted Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol to abandon his prepared testimony and passionately defend both the plan and the regents. "It is a gross misrepresentation of the [compact] to characterize it as 'doing your own thing''' charged an angry Sobol, who went on to describe the compact as "top-down support for bottom-up reform.''
Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association and one of the regents' most ardent critics, likens the compact to the emperor and his new clothes. Although Grumet believes the compact is "a wonderful idea,'' he says the concept has not been translated into concrete regulations for districts to follow, with the exception of a provision requiring districts to involve parents in decisionmaking.
In fact, Grumet charges, the districts are still legally bound to the Regents Action Plan, a prescriptive set of expectations adopted in 1984, because the board has yet to adopt and codify regulations for the compact. State officials acknowledge that Grumet is technically correct on this point but add that districts can, and indeed are being encouraged to, seek waivers.
Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle, the chairman of the Senate higher-education committee, uses a different literary allusion to describe the compact. Contending that the regents have spent a disproportionate amount of time on the plan, LaValle complained at a joint session of the legislature in March that the compact had taken on a life of its own. The compact "has devoured the process and its designers. For the board of regents and the department of education, the compact will be what the monster was to Dr. Frankenstein.''
Grumet also faults the regents for what he sees as indecision. He points to the regents' recent change of heart on charitable solicitations in the schools. For three months running--at three consecutive board meetings--the board changed its mind on whether to continue a little-known, and even less followed, regulation banning solicitations in school. It has also had difficulty settling on an AIDS curriculum. "There is no constancy,'' Grumet says. "We have no belief that the board of regents will stand tomorrow where it stood yesterday.''
Grumet contends that the problems lie with the board's leadership. In March, he and others tried to get R. Carlos Carballada, the regents' chancellor, ousted from the board. But the legislature, by a wide margin, reappointed Carballada to another term.
Even the regents themselves face a frustration of sorts with the compact. "The new compact has not received directly the kind of funding that is necessary to carry out education reform,'' Walter Cooper says. He cites, for instance, the regents' efforts to increase early-education opportunities for at-risk youngsters so they will be ready to enter school. The board has also asked for more money for staff development. But, Cooper says, the legislature has not authorized the funds.
"Look at a state like Kentucky ... [which] has a comprehensive reform and has it funded. Why can't we have the vision?'' he asks. "Why can't we have the courage to have a comprehensive reform package and have it funded?''
But as critics clamor for change, proponents also have come to the forefront in defense of the board's New Compact for Learning.
Carballada, for one, defends the pace and concept of the compact. "The board is being cautious,'' he says. "This is something that is going to have a positive effect for children who are going through the system for 25, 30, 35 years. We really need to spend time on this because ... we're not going to get very many chances at creating this kind of reform if we are not reasonably successful with this.''
Carballada also says the regents have taken numerous steps to insure a smooth process. Until a few years ago, for instance, many of the board's six committees met simultaneously. Now, they meet at different times so the regents can keep abreast of what each panel is doing. Moreover, a committee of all the major chairs has been created to help make sure themes are carried throughout the entire system.
Other supporters agree that such a massive undertaking takes time, especially in a state as large and diverse as New York.
"It can't be in place in all areas at the same time with like progress,'' says James O'Connell, the executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "In some districts, it's humming along; in others, nothing's going on.''
Long Island's North Shore district is one place where the reform is progressing. By the end of this year, school officials will have defined standards in most core subject areas, and, within two years, they expect to have a broader and richer array of assessment instruments.
The district has been working in that direction for 10 years, but the new compact has given it state support, says Michael V. McGill, the superintendent. An educator for almost 30 years who has worked in four states, McGill says that this is the first time he has seen a state bureaucracy try to redefine its role from regulator and director to colleague and supporter. "If the state had done nothing else besides that shift in attitude,'' he says, "that to me is just critically important.''
"The compact really goes into the belly of the beast,'' McGill continues. "It's not just trying to rearrange the furniture of schooling. It's directly addressing the question of teaching and learning in the classroom, which is where the enterprise occurs.''
Frederick C. Calder, the executive director of the New York State Association of Independent Schools, says the compact also means good news for the state's private elementary and secondary schools, which must meet the regents' curriculum, health, and safety standards for their students to receive a legal state diploma. Without one, Calder explains, graduates can be locked out of jobs.
"Reform and change should originate at the local level and should not come from the state brain trust,'' says Calder, whose organization has felt fettered under the prescriptive measures of the Regents Action Plan. "In some ways, the new compact moves toward our way of thinking. The whole spirit of the new compact is really much less threatening to private schools.''
No Common Agenda
The idea, of course, behind a monolithic structure such as the New York state board of regents and its New Compact for Learning is to create a single seamless policy.
Indeed, a basic tenet of the current education-reform movement is the necessity to smooth the passage from early-childhood education to elementary and then secondary school and from there to college or work. "The comprehensiveness of the New York system helps to promote the planning and the design of those connections,'' says Ambach, a former New York education commissioner.
Ideally, says Diane S. Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, "it probably is a good idea to have a nonpolitical, nonpartisan body to have coordination among all these different functions. When you split them off, you get these different planets of the system working at cross-purposes.'' But the philosophical down side, she adds, is the consolidation of power in one integrated system. "We Americans usually don't like to see that conglomeration of power in one body.''
In New York State, the governor has virtually no authority over the education department or the board of regents, which is a constitutional entity. The legislature elects the regents who, in turn, hire and retain the commissioner of education at their pleasure. Consequently, tensions between governors and the regents date back many years, observers say, and the relationship between Governor Cuomo and the regents is no exception.
"In recent years, the Governor and regents have had some confrontations,'' says Stephan F. Brumberg, a professor of education at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Cuomo "wants a policy; they don't. They want money; he refuses. They serve as a veto against each other.''
Frustrated over a number of education issues, Governor Cuomo last year appointed a commission to study the state's entire education system. The commission found that "neither the Governor, nor the regents, nor the commissioner of education, nor the legislature is held fully accountable for public education.''
"No impartial observer would argue that there is coherence in how our government institutions address the education needs of our children,'' the commission chairman, H. Patrick Swygert, the president of the State University of New York at Albany, wrote in the report's preface. "The Governor, the regents, the Assembly, and the Senate each have an education agenda. This cacophony not only confuses the public but also obstructs the implementation of a common agenda for children.''
An Erosion of Power
Both the commission's report and witnesses who testified at the November Senate hearing point to a disturbing lack of communication between the regents and state government. Therefore, it's no small irony that the Capitol and the state education department are just a stone's throw away, facing each other across Washington Avenue in Albany.
Once thought of as the fourth branch of government, the education department is housed in a colossal neo-classical edifice that takes up an entire city block. It boasts the largest colonnade in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Nearly 4,000 people work for the department.
But in recent years, the regents have seen their power erode. Their terms of office were cut from 14 to seven years in 1974. Last year, terms were trimmed again, to five years. What's more, the legislature stripped the disciplining of physicians from the board of regents' purview.
And a handful of legislators are demanding other changes as well. Pending bills would set up conflict-of-interest provisions. The proposed provisions, for example, would prohibit full-time employment in the university system--a change that would affect at least five and possibly six of the board's current regents.
Lawmakers have also proposed cutting terms of office to three years, requiring each regent to hold at least one public hearing a year, mandating verbatim transcripts for regents' meetings, and making it easier to remove regents from the board.
Some legislators are even calling for changes in the regent-selection process. Under one proposal, regents would go through a screening process similar to that used for judicial candidates. Another proposal would require that nominees be confirmed by both legislative chambers sitting separately rather than as a single body, as they are now, which effectively dilutes the Senate vote.
To some, these changes spell a further politicization of the board of regents.
To others, like P. Michael Timpane, the retiring president of Teachers College, Columbia University, they are akin to "an old smoke-and-mirrors trick. If you don't want to put resources into something, then you reorganize it.''
All of the attacks have taken their toll on the reverence in which the regents have long been held and have frayed the tempers of the regents themselves.
Among other criticisms, Edward Meyer complained at a Senate hearing about the caliber of some of his fellow board members.
Some Albany watchers say Meyer's comments were partially justified. As one notes, "When certain regents take the floor and start speaking, [reporters and lobbyists] stop writing.''
But regents were uneasy and some angry with Meyer's public attacks on the board and the education department. Alluding to Meyer's propensity to grab headlines, one regent, Carl T. Hayden, was subsequently overheard by a reporter calling Meyer the board's "Joey Buttafuoco.''
Michael Usdan says the chipping away of the regents' mystique is a reflection of a changing world. "The case can be made,'' he says, that as the world became more complicated and social issues increasingly impinged on the schools, "it may have been too hidebound.''
Yet, few New Yorkers are ready to abandon the regents. "With all the
flaws in the system and in the individuals, until you show me something
better,'' O'Connell of the superintendents' council says, "I'm not
about to give it up.''
The following 35 professions fall under the authority of the New York state board of regents. Its office of the professions oversees the licensing and disciplining of each occupation.
Certified Dietetics and Nutrition
Certified Public Accountancy
Certified Shorthand Reporting
Licensed Practical Nursing
Occupational Therapy Assistant
Physical Therapy Assistant
Registered Professional Nursing
Respiratory Therapy Assistant
The board of regents also licenses the following three medical professions, but the state department of health assumes disciplinary responsibility for them.