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.

on the market

Albany to Boston? New York education official Angelica Infante-Green in the running to lead Massachusetts schools

PHOTO: Chiefs for Change
Angelica Infante-Green is a finalist to run schools in Massachusetts.

One of New York state’s top education officials is a finalist to take over the leaderless state education department in Massachusetts.

Angelica Infante-Green is one of three finalists to succeed Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts education commissioner who died unexpectedly in June 2017, according to the Boston Herald.

Infante-Green is a deputy commissioner overseeing instruction in New York’s public schools, where she has recently spearheaded the state’s efforts integrate schools by race and class. Before arriving in Albany in 2013, she oversaw New York City’s efforts to serve to English language learners. In that position, she was responsible for expanding the city’s bilingual and dual-language programs and making sure that immigrant families landed in the best schools for their children.

Infante-Green is the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, a graduate of New York City schools, and a Teach For America alumna.

When she was teaching, Infante-Green felt “a little frustration in the classroom because there were policies that were being made without really knowing what was happening in the classroom,” she said in a video interview with Chiefs for Change, a national coalition of state and district education leaders that advocates for policy changes to help students. “So I decided that I was going to bring that drive to create change at a different level.”

Infante-Green is part of Chiefs for Change’s “Future Chiefs” program, which aims to cultivate a diverse pipeline of education leaders. She is also is a public school parent of two children; her son attends the first-ever dual-language program for students with autism, which she helped launch.

In an interview with Education Post last year, Infante-Green reflected on how her experiences as a parent, educator, and administrator inform her outlook on education policy.

“I’ve always had a passion for equity because of my own experience. I know firsthand what it’s like to be in a school where there isn’t much support and expectations are low,” Infante Green said in the interview. “If I didn’t have the chance to change schools, I don’t know how I would have ended up. So I work to make sure all kids have the opportunity to thrive.”

Massachusetts would present different challenges for Infante-Green. Schools there are considered the highest-performing in the country, and unlike in New York, the state runs some struggling districts directly.

The other candidates for the Massachusetts job, according to the Boston Herald, are Jeffrey Riley, who leads the state-run Lawrence Public Schools in central Massachusetts; and Penny Schwinn, chief deputy commissioner of academics at the Texas Education Agency. They were selected from 18 applicants and will undergo interviews in Boston next week.

Clarification (Jan. 17, 2018): This story has been updated to clarify the activities of Chiefs for Change, as well as to include Infante-Green’s participation in the Future Chiefs program.

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Holcomb calls for changes to Indiana diplomas and more computer science in annual address

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Gov. Eric Holcomb addresses lawmakers during his 2018 State of the State speech.

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s second major address to Hoosiers stuck closely to his biggest education policy priority for 2018: Ensuring students are prepared for life after high school.

“We must ensure that every Hoosier student receives an education infused with STEM subjects, critical thinking skills and the intellectual curiosity that prepares them for lifelong learning,” Holcomb said. “So when they graduate from high school, they have a ticket to their future success, be it going on to college or entering the workforce to realize a fulfilling career.”

His speech Tuesday night didn’t break much new ground, and some main themes — such as emphasizing science education and job training — are holdovers from last year. But while K-12 education has never been Holcomb’s strong suit, his remarks did indicate the importance the Republican governor is placing on adjusting the education system to better address his economic goals and showed he would be willing to even put money behind the effort.

His remarks on education — which took only a few minutes of his 30-minute speech before the legislature — appeared to align with a couple of key bills winding their ways through the Indiana General Assembly.

A bill to create a single state diploma has the support of some Republican legislative leaders so far, as well as state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. It’s not clear exactly where Holcomb comes down on this issue, but he did call for changes to the state’s current system, which has four separate diplomas.

“Late last year, Indiana’s State Board of Education took a crucial step by approving new graduation pathways for high school students beginning in 2019,” Holcomb said. “And this year, we must advance a more relevant high school diploma so that every student graduates with a diploma that is their opportunity to advance to the next step along their path.”

Read: Indiana’s new high school graduation rules were widely opposed by parents and educators. The state board approved them anyway.

Holcomb also said he supports a plan requiring all district and charter schools to teach about computer science in grades K-12, which would include funding so schools can train teachers in the subject area. The money, in the $2 million-dollar range, would come from several existing funds. Currently, about 42 percent of schools in the state offer such instruction.

“This year … we’ll enact legislation to require every Indiana K-12 school to offer computer science courses,” Holcomb said. “And we’ll pay for the teacher professional development they’ll need to inspire their students.”

Here he differs from McCormick, who supports giving more science, technology, engineering and math education to students, but doesn’t want to make it mandatory for districts.

“We want to see it offered to students,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “Their academic path is a decision they need to drive along with the input of their parents, and local educators and counselors.”

Leading state Democrats felt Holcomb’s speech lacked specificity and vision, particularly in the area of job training.

“I was struck more by what he didn’t say,” said Rep. Terry Goodin, House Minority leader and former superintendent. “I guess I was expecting more of a bold vision or bold idea in terms of what do we need to do to the workforce system here in Indiana.”

Yet Republicans cheered some of Holcomb’s goals on job training, acknowledging how unusual it is that legislative leaders and the governor would be on the same page on major priorities.

“I’ve worked with seven different governors, this is somewhat of a unique session,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma. “We’re all on the same page that workforce is the most critical issue.”

Below, you can find more excerpts from Holcomb’s speech.

On job training

“Over the next year, we’ll use the newly created Education to Career Pathways Cabinet — led by Secretary Blair Milo, Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, Commissioner Teresa Lubbers, DWD Commissioner Fred Payne and OMB Director Micah Vincent — to set the framework to guide regions and communities.

By next year, we must be armed with the framework to drive legislative action, including funding changes. But now, lawmakers, we need your support to position this cabinet for success to ensure our school-age Hoosiers are gaining the experiences and skills they need to thrive in our ever-changing global economy.”

On expanding education programs

“We’ll also take better advantage of programs with proven results, such as the Jobs for America’s Graduates program — or JAG. Last month, I agreed to become the chairman of this terrific national program that helps at-risk students complete their high school diplomas.

I’m committed to expanding JAG. It works. So, as we evaluate programs over the next year, we’ll maximize existing resources and work with the private sector to add 250 more programs all across Indiana within the next five years.”

Read more about Holcomb’s background, first year in office, 2018 education plans and more.