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The politics of education in New York: Reading, writing and ... rifles?

ALBANY – The state Board of Regents, with roots tracing to 1784, is a 17-member body charged with setting and guiding education policy for public schools across New York, including the coursework that 2,622,879 students will be taught this year.

Increasingly, though, lawmakers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo want a piece of that action.

Dozens of bills are pending in Albany seeking to require schools to teach everything from awareness about domestic violence and hate crimes to climate change, “medically accurate” sex education for students starting in the first grade.

There is the new Cuomo bill requiring instruction about the state’s “rich history of diversity and religious freedom." Another bill that calls for a “multicultural” curriculum. Still another would require a class that teaches about hunting and fishing if 10 students in a physical education class request it.

At least 44 curriculum mandate bills have been introduced since last year in the current two-year session of the Senate and Assembly. Some specifically order instruction in some special focus, while others take a gentler approach by suggesting an idea but then leaving it up to the Regents to devise a plan to meet the legislation’s intent.

Still, the classroom focus by legislators, which goes back more than 100 years but which has been increasing in recent years, raises questions, including these:

Should politicians be inserting their education views, sometimes driven by their own political views or headlines of the day, into school curriculum?

And should Albany be forcing more and more educational edicts into classrooms when students already have limited amounts of time in a day and curriculum requirements are already jam-packed?

“I’m not against climate change bills or anything, but how much more can we put on the school when it’s only 20% of a child’s day 10 months out of the year? It’s hard to know what to offload if everything becomes mandated," said Mark Laurrie, the Niagara Falls school district superintendent.

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With existing required coursework protocols, Laurrie said, there no longer is time to even teach students social studies and science every school day.

“They say these ideas can be integrated into the core curriculum. I ask: What should we take out?" he wondered.

Lawmakers defend their interest in curriculum ideas for the state’s more than 700 school districts and say they, too, have both a legal role and special insight to shape what students are taught in any range of subject areas.

“We have a closer relationship with students" than the State Education Department, said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal. “The Regents do a good job, but we know best the needs of the schools, and the Legislature is an incubator for good ideas."

The Manhattan Democrat has seven bills pending. She also has a measure seeking answers why schools are not teaching students about humane treatment of animals; that requirement was first put on schools by the Legislature 103 years ago. Rosenthal would also amend that 1917 law to expand it to younger students.

“Most of my curriculum bill ideas don’t require an entire class period or a day. The vast majority can be incorporated into existing coursework and won’t require separate instruction," Rosenthal said.

Civics is a perfect example, Rosenthal says. She notes many schools have abandoned any serious effort at teaching civics. “People don’t know the difference between local, state and federal governments," she said.

Collaboration is important

State Sen. Shelley Mayer, a Westchester County Democrat, heads the influential Senate Education Committee, which plays a role in everything from school funding to student safety to coursework ideas. She has one curriculum bill herself: to require age and developmentally appropriate instruction about breast cancer screenings in health courses.

Like most committee leaders, Mayer can exert great influence over what bills make it out of her committee – meaning what bills die in committee or might have a chance to make it to the floor for a Senate vote. As such, Mayer is no fan of bills that specifically mandate – without any input from state education experts – a course of study.

“That being said, legislators are on the ground in their districts talking to parents, students and teachers, and we see the impact of what our students learn and don’t learn," she said.

Some legislators believe they are more nimble to enact new coursework ideas than a large education bureaucracy spread across state and local boards and departments. At a time when hate crimes or mass shootings continue to rage, lawmakers believe they have a role in seeing that students become aware of what’s going on around them and to have incorporated into their school day such concepts as tolerance of people who have different faiths or gender identities. Or, as a bill the Senate education committee passed last week, requiring students in New York to learn about the meaning of swastikas and nooses as symbols of hate.

“We work with the Regents and local school boards, but we’re not going to be hands off and defer to everyone else," Mayer said.

Hours in a day

School officials say curriculum legislation is becoming more common in Albany. They note that previous education committee leaders in the two houses – John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican and the current Senate Minority Leader, and Catherine Nolan, a Queens Democrat – were reluctant to let curriculum mandates out of their committees.

Superintendents generally prefer that curriculum matters be left to the Regents. “It’s not that legislators don’t have informed opinions, but they’re just not in the best position to figure out how it fits," said Laurrie.

“Is it always welcome news when someone from the state says, ‘Here’s something else you have to do?’ No, it’s not always welcome news," Michael Cornell, the Hamburg schools superintendent, said of new course requirements.

At the district level, it can be challenging for school leaders, who are trying to juggle the hours in a day against an increasing number of mandated coursework or ancillary information taught to students.

Moreover, Cornell believes, many schools already are teaching things like tolerance – not at a specific set time each week to check off a mandate box but in a range of ways throughout a student’s day and from pre-K through 12th grade.

While superintendents are not thrilled about more curriculum mandates being dictated from the floors of the Legislature in Albany, educators will find value in those that do pass “and do their level best to incorporate them to keep with the spirit of the mandate and also appropriate for the course of study," Cornell added.

Still, even if some legislators’ ideas can be incorporated into existing coursework, there can be logistical issues in a six-hour school day that also includes time for lunch and physical activities.

Article 17

The state Education Department said curriculum decisions, ultimately and historically, have been “and should remain a local school district determination."

On July 20, a new course mandate will require public school students to be taught about child sexual abuse and exploitation prevention classes in kindergarten through eighth grade. But the department notes that it does not have an associate in health education – to oversee the updating of health regulations based on education materials – because of lack of funding from the state.

Article 17 of the state Education Law lists a range of specific coursework requirements relating to everything from prevention of child abduction and character education to instruction of safe use of firearms to setting aside time on the last Friday of April to “encourage the planting, protection and preservation of trees and shrubs."

Lawmakers this year want to add requirements, including a study regarding the “ecological literacy and health living” curriculum in schools; coursework about eating disorders, hate crime awareness and teen-based dating violence prevention' and Indian Subcontinent/Indo-Caribbean studies, with a provision that content on that topic can vary across the state.

Some, like Cuomo’s new tolerance instruction plan or the $25 million for a pilot program to teach “culturally responsive” coursework, come with state money. Most do not.

Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, an Oswego County Republican, said some of the bills have laudable goals, but he worries about creating a slippery slope. “Instead of a sweeping statewide mandate, initiatives have to incorporate local input and control for teachers and schools," he said.

Mayer, the Senate education committee leader, said Democrats who lead the Senate are showing more of a willingness to engage in substantive conversations about what is being taught in New York's public schools. “We’re going to do it collaboratively, but we’re not going to shy away from these conversations," she said.

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