New Regents chancellor would bring significant change

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Betty Rosa, (Riverdale Review/Bronx Press)
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ALBANY — The appointment of Betty Rosa as chancellor of the state Board of Regents will bring major change to the education policymaking board, ending the reign of Merryl Tisch — a leader whose positions on most education issues vary greatly from that of Rosa.

The selection of the Bronx board member will also likely embolden test-refusal movement leaders, who endorsed Rosa for the leadership role.

Rosa, who has been outspoken on testing and teacher evaluations issues, may clash with state education commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who was hired under the leadership of Tisch and supports high standards and state testing for data purposes.

“We’re going to welcome her to what is a very tough job,” Regents board member James Tallon Jr. told POLITICO New York. “The Regents are a unique body. ... If we go back to look at the battles that Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson [had in creating the Regents], this is a body that ought to be able to handle some controversy.”

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Rosa, as was first reported by The Wall Street Journal last week, is expected to be appointed as chancellor at the board’s March meeting, set for March 21 and 22.

Rosa is the only member to actively put his or her name in for the role.

The person to fill the role of vice chancellor, after board member Tony Bottar decided not to run for re-election, is a little more uncertain. Names currently being floated include board member T. Andrew Brown and Wade Norwood, members told POLITICO New York.

Regent Beverly Ouderkirk, who was endorsed by the test refusal groups to be vice chancellor, said she would consider the role, but she has not gained as much traction, members said.

After Tisch decided not to run for re-election, ending her 20-year tenure on the board, members began putting out the names of Regents board member Lester Young, Roger Tilles and Kathleen Cashin, but none pursued the post, Rosa said. Young and Cashin wanted to continue with their committee work, Rosa said.

Bronx legislators and advocacy groups, including New York State Allies for Public Education — the coalition of parent groups that lead the massive test refusal movement last spring — urged Rosa to run, she said. “There was a lot of encouragement, I was like ‘This is getting crazy!’”

Tilles said he would still consider the role if no one else wanted it but didn’t want to get into the “politicking."

"This process has been very different from previous selections, where chancellors were pretty much “preordained,” Tilles said.

“I think a confluence of things happened in terms of my not running, and Lester not running, paved the way,” he said, of Rosa stepping up without opposition.

The process has always been an inside political game, but now it has more public interest, said David Bloomfield, an education leadership professor at Brooklyn College and at the City University of New York Graduate Center, who ran to fill a seat on the board this year but was not selected.

“It’s always been political, but that was played out among the Regents and in the Assembly rather than announced publically,” he said. “I think it’s the current era of school politics where issues have become polarized and with public jockeying for the position.”

Last spring more than 20 percent of students opted not to take the state standardized, Common Core-aligned math and English language arts exams.

“A lot of these things are interconnected, one wrong move could have an impact on some of the other issues,” Rosa said. “It’s being strategic. It’s being well-informed.”

It’s also about re-gaining trust, she said: “That’s a tall order.”

The board overall has been and continues to be shaken up, fallout from the difficult rollout of the Common Core learning standards, increase in state testing and the use of student state test scores in teacher and principal evaluations — all put into place under Tisch’s tenure as the state competed for federal grant dollars and abided by new federal education laws.

“I think it will be interesting to see how the chancellor might change if it indeed is [Rosa], because she and others have complained about the lack of transparency and the lack of delegations of the chancellor,” Tilles said.

Rosa and a group of five other Regents, the majority of whom are relatively new to the board — Judith Chin, Judith Johnson, Cashin, Ouderkirk and Catherine Collins — are known as the “renegades,” often voting against the majority on key issues such as the teacher evaluations.

Rosa’s leadership will likely be far different than that of Tisch, who for a long time led the board with little opposition until new members, including Rosa, came on, challenging her and the traditions of the board.

Rosa conceded that she has not always seen "eye to eye" with Tisch, but she paid tribute to her years of dedication.

“I truly may not have agreed on some things, but I truly salute her for giving 20 years of her time and life to doing this kind of work,” she said.

The factions on the board along with the arrival of three new members will pose further challenges for the new chancellor.

“If Betty can lead -- that’s going to be a big question,” Tilles said. “She’s not had a leadership position at all on the Regents and she’s been on the other side of virtually all the issues and whether she can continue to lead what appears to be a fractious group will be interesting.”

Tallon said Rosa’s experience as an educator, including working with English language learners and special education students, as well as having worked as a teacher, principal and superintendent, bodes well.

“I think we’re going to move forward. I’m not anticipating issues,” Tallon said.

Rosa, originally from Puerto Rico, relates to English language learners, and with her work with special education students, said she feels she’ll be able to bring a different perspective to the chancellor position. “I’d like to get back to a system that is not one size fits all, a system that really is focused on children’s needs,” she said.

She also said she’s not worried about differences on the board.

“The fact that the board has diversity in experiences, diversity in terms of culture, diversity in terms of where they’ve been, how they see things, I think it’s a wonderful opportunity, and I look forward to being inclusive and being someone that hopefully learns from the board and hopefully represents the board,” she said.

As for how the board will differ under Rosa’s tenure, Tallon said he had no idea.

“I know that Chancellor Tisch was deeply engaged and informed about the issues that were before the board. She truly did her homework. It was built on a good professional background, a real sense of leadership and I think that her leadership was exemplary,” Tallon said. “Betty will put the same degree of attention and diligence into her efforts too.”

Another factor in her ability to bring the board together will be Rosa’s relationship with Elia, both of whom are former teachers, but seem to have slightly different takes on where the education system is going.

For example, Elia has said the Common Core learning standards need to be tweaked, but will not be drastically different after the state’s revision.

Rosa said the state needs to do more than a survey of what needs to be changed, and must “seriously revisit the Common Core standards.”

“I can’t really tell where the commissioner is going to come out on this,” Tilles said. “[Elia] came on the board to be able to exert her independence. She knew at the time that Merryl was probably going to be leaving, she really wanted to be the one to call the shots.”

But Rosa doesn’t see drastic change ahead if she’s appointed to the chancellor position.

“When you have an institution as large as [the state education department] is and you have changes…you still have to proceed in a way that doesn’t create more turbulence in the field,” she said. “It’s going to be a process.”

Rosa said her first year would be one of “taking stock,” with the board discussing what to focus on and working collectively to come to an agreement on how to proceed, she said.

Her style will be different from Tisch's, she said. “Anybody whose been on this board sees [that]  my style is different from Chancellor Tisch,” she said.