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State education boards: Who's got the power?

New York State Senate

When New York legislators vote on seven new Board of Regents members on March 10, they’ll act out a vision that dates back to 1784. That’s when the state formed its Board of Regents, which supervises almost every facet of school instruction.

New York chose an unusual method for selecting new regents: a vote by both houses of the legislature, with no input from the governor.

“We have a whole history in this country of being afraid of executive power,” says SUNY Cortland political science professor Mary McGuire. She says when New York was setting up the process, “The concern here was that this was a policy area that was of great interest to the public.” A vote by the legislature, the thinking went, would make it more democratic. 

The thing is, almost no other state does this. Everywhere except New York and South Carolina, either the governor appoints the board, or there’s a statewide election.

Take Pennsylvania for example. The governor chooses all but four of the 21 board members.

Kris Amundson directs the National Association of State Boards of Education. She says that system can make a lot of sense.

“Governors understand that they’re ultimately held responsible for what happens in education on their watch,” she says. But they can’t do exactly what they want, “if they don’t have any control over the people who are going to carry out that policy.”

New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo might agree – he’s been trying to wrest control away from the legislature. And there’s extra scrutiny on the New York board this year because of the state’s controversial Common Core standards roll-out.

But Amundson says when it comes to the success of any state board, “it is less about how you get there than what you do once you arrive.”

And, she says, an effective board can come from just about any selection process.