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.
When Regents budget recommends come out and some hot items not on the agenda are going to be introduced, reporters go into crisis mode level: shared M&M cookie. With @MonicaDisare #partylikeajournalist pic.twitter.com/rUt2foP5Pk
— Keshia Clukey (@KeshiaClukey) December 11, 2017
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.
Very important Regents item on graduation today. It was not posted until about 5 minutes before the meeting and it looks like the Regents are about to vote. https://t.co/BnnxqCd3bN
— Monica Disare (@MonicaDisare) December 11, 2017
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.