reporter's notebook

How does New York set education policy? An inside look at the mad dash to make sense of a major diploma change

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

An hour before officials made sweeping changes to New York’s high-school graduation requirements Monday, only a select few knew the game-changing policy was coming.

That morning, I was standing with a group of fellow reporters outside the room where the state Board of Regents had just concluded the first portion of their monthly meeting. As we finished questioning State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia about the budget and were about to break for lunch, the department’s press secretary mentioned offhand that the afternoon session would cover new graduation requirements.

Graduation requirements? We looked at each other, puzzled. The only item on the agenda for the relevant session was a minor update on education-technology funding.

An hour later, the board would vote to ease graduation requirements for students with disabilities — a significant policy shift that will allow some students to earn a diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams. But if members of the public (or reporters, for that matter) wanted to review the changes more than a few minutes before the board voted on them — they were out of luck.

Monday’s vote is an extreme example of the way New York’s education decision-makers often craft potentially controversial policies behind the scenes, then reveal them to the public shortly before they’re approved — leaving little time for debate. In this case, as I would later learn, officials intentionally withheld the policy document until the last minute so they could manage how the public made sense of it.

As soon as the press secretary tipped us off that morning, I scurried off to get food — including a large M&M cookie that I shared with another reporter — and settled in for the news.

Then, just a few minutes before the afternoon meeting, the state published notice of the graduation proposal. I fired off a tweet and joined a group of confused onlookers scrambling to figure out what it said.

The day’s other proposals had been published online the previous Friday  giving the public at least three days notice before they were discussed, as required by state law. Now, we would have to dig through the 11-page document as the Regents were discussing it. Before I’d figured out what it all meant, they voted unanimously to approve it.

The change, which the state called an “emergency measure,” went into effect the next day. The public-comment period begins Dec. 27.

As soon as the measure was approved, a group of about 30 parents who had spent months pushing for the change erupted in applause. They were thrilled — but, as it turns out, not entirely surprised.

“An agenda has been published that does not show diplomas as a topic,” one of the parents, Bonnie Buckley, wrote Friday evening on a Facebook page called “Multiple Pathways for a Diploma for All.” “We have absolute confirmation that pathways to a diploma will be on the agenda for the Board of Regents meeting in Albany on Monday in the 1:25-3:30 time slot.”

The page, which has almost 6,000 members, is a virtual meeting space for parents and other advocates who supported the policy shift. Members of the group had met with Commissioner Elia and other officials in November, and left with the strong impression that the rule change would be discussed at the next month’s Regents meeting, Buckley said. Then, last week, a state official emailed a group member in response to her inquiry to say they should show up to Monday’s meeting, Buckley added.

Still, while the group had been tipped off about the proposal, they — like the rest of the public — didn’t get to see the actual document until it was posted at the start of the afternoon meeting.

It was posted at 1 [p.m.], literally,” Buckley said. “We were all sitting together and I think somebody elbowed me and said, ‘There it is.’”

At 2 p.m., after the Regents had voted, the state education department sent out a press release describing the policy that had just been approved. Thirty minutes later, High Achievement New York, an advocacy group that promotes rigorous learning standards, sent reporters a statement under the heading: “Rule Change for Students with Disabilities Lacks Transparency, Step in Wrong Direction.”

The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” the statement read.

But if the public was scrambling to make sense of the change, the Regents had already had plenty of time to digest it.

Elia had floated the basics of the policy during a Regents meeting in July, but offered no specifics at that time. When it was finalized earlier this month, state education officials and Board of Regents members were given a copy — about a week before it was posted online, Chancellor Betty Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Thursday. In fact, the document — which bears Elia’s signature — is dated Dec. 5, six days before the vote.

“I talked about it with the commissioner and I personally felt that it was better to have an internal document that we were all going to look at prior to the meeting,” Rosa said.

She and Elia had decided that the policy was so important they would not post the document ahead of Monday’s meeting because she wanted the public to hear the board discuss it before trying to make sense of it on their own, Rosa added.

“There are times that you want to walk people through something and then let them react,” she said.

This is not the first time the Regents have passed policy as an “emergency” rule, which allows them to implement the policy before soliciting public comment.

But failing to disclose documents that were readily available before Monday’s meeting violates the state’s Open Meetings Law, said Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government. If top officials had access to the document several days before the meeting, the law “clearly would be applicable,” he said.

In a statement, state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said officials consult with stakeholders as they develop policy proposals and that, in this instance, they had received input on the issue over the past two years. However, she added that the department had failed to post a notice of the proposal ahead of the Regents’ meeting “in error.”

“We are reviewing our processes and procedures to ensure this does not happen again,” she said.

After the meeting, I dashed off a first draft of the story and hurried to the Amtrak station to catch a train back to New York City. On the train, I was still making changes to the story — and making sense of a whirlwind day.

Emergency fix

Mold-infested Detroit school will be closed for the rest of the year, school board meeting ends in chaos

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy will be closed for the rest of the year while crews replace the roof and make other repairs.

A water-damaged, mold-infested elementary school building in northwest Detroit will be closed for the rest of the school year while crews replace the roof and make other repairs.

District superintendent Nikolai Vitti notified the school board about plans for the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy during a board meeting Tuesday night that became so raucous, the board called a recess for nearly an hour before voting to end the meeting without addressing most of the items on its agenda.

The meeting was ended after security guards attempted to remove a loud protester from the meeting, prompting objections from her supporters.

Vitti told the board that the 500 students at Palmer Park will be relocated to two nearby schools.

“Starting on Monday,” Vitti said, Palmer Park classes will resume “in other buildings where we have space.”

Specifically, he said, elementary school students will likely go to the now-closed former Catherine Ferguson building and middle school students will move into extra classroom space at Bethune Elementary-Middle School. Bus transportation will be provided, he said.

The district is checking to see if this week’s five-day closure will require the district to add extra hours to comply with state class time requirements.

The potentially dangerous health conditions in the school, which teachers say caused some educators to become ill, were among several matters that had a large group of protesters angry with Vitti and board.

Earlier, protesters led by activist Helen Moore had loudly urged the board as it met at Mumford High School to discuss Mayor Mike Duggan’s plans, announced during last week’s State of the City address, to create collaborations between district and charter schools to grade Detroit schools and to work together on student transportation.

The activists warned that the mayor was trying to usurp the authority of the elected board.

“That’s how they take over,” Moore shouted.

The crowd also shouted loudly as Vitti discussed the district’s response to the Palmer Park situation, suggesting the district had put children’s health in harm’s way at buildings throughout the district.

Vitti acknowledged that the condition of district buildings is poor.

“I still am horrified by the overall condition of our buildings, specifically at certain locations,” Vitti said. “But I will continue to say that if you look at the day-to-day operations and use of these buildings, children are safe.”

When the audience yelled “nooo,” Vitti defended himself.

“I have nothing … to offer but integrity. My name is attached to this work,” Vitti said, noting that he has four children enrolled in the district. “If there is a child that is in harm’s way … then I will act immediately.”

The district is currently conducting a nearly $1 million study on the conditions of its buildings before making major investments in renovations.

But that timeline isn’t fast enough for one school board member.

“The building assessment won’t be ready until it’s almost time to return to school for the 18-19 school year,” board member LaMar Lemmons said. He blasted the Palmer Park situation as a “public relations nightmare.”

“If we don’t put in some damage control and get ahead of this, people will have a poor perception of the district, not only at Palmer Park but in its entirety,” he said.

media blitz

Making the rounds on TV, Betsy DeVos says she hasn’t visited struggling schools and draws sharp criticism

DeVos on the Today Show

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has visited all kinds of schools since she took office last year: district-run, charter, private, religious — even a school located in a zoo.

But one kind of school has been left out, she said Sunday on 60 Minutes: schools that are struggling.

It was a curious admission, since DeVos has built her policy agenda on the argument that vast swaths of American schools are so low-performing that their students should be given the choice to leave. That argument, DeVos conceded, is not based on any firsthand experiences.

Host Lesley Stahl pushed DeVos on the schools she’s skipped. Here’s their exchange:

Lesley Stahl: Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?

DeVos: I have not — I have not — I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.

Stahl: Maybe you should.

DeVos: Maybe I should. Yes.

Her comments attracted criticism from her frequent foes, like American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten, who tweeted:

Even some who are more sympathetic to school choice initiatives said the interview did not go well.

The exchange occupied just a few seconds of the nearly 30 minutes that DeVos spent on television Sunday and Monday, including interviews on Fox and Friends and the Today Show. The appearances followed several school-safety proposals from the White House Sunday, including paying for firearms training for some teachers.

DeVos sidestepped questions about raising the age for gun purchases. “We have to get much broader than just talking about guns, and a gun issue where camps go into their corners,” she said. “We have to go back to the beginning and talk about how these violent acts are even occurring to start with.”

She also endorsed local efforts to decide whether to increase weapons screening at schools. Asked on Fox and Friends about making schools more like airports, with metal detectors and ID checks, DeVos responded, “You know, some schools actually do that today. Perhaps for some communities, for some cities, for some states, that will be appropriate.”

DeVos also said on 60 Minutes that she would look into removing guidance from the Obama administration that was designed to reduce racial disparities in school suspensions and expulsions. Education Week reported, based on comments from an unnamed administration official, that the the guidance would likely land on the DeVos task force’s agenda.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has argued that the Obama-era guidance may have contributed to Florida shooting by preventing the shooter from being referred to the police. (In fact, the 2013 Broward County program designed to reduce referrals to police for minor offenses predated the 2014 federal guidance.)

Details of the commission were not immediately available. Education Week also reported that “age restrictions for certain firearm purchases,” “rating systems for video games,” and “the effects of press coverage of mass shootings” are likely to be discussed.

“The Secretary will unveil a robust plan regarding the commission’s membership, scope of work and timeline in the coming days,” Liz Hill, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said in an email.