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Candidate to unseat a Regent strikes a far-from-insurgent tone

DOE officials and parent activists have called the planning process of the new Frank McCourt High School a model for parent involvement in new school building.

ALBANY — The latest candidate vying to fill a seat on the state’s education policy-making body sounded a lot like the incumbent whose term she is trying to take over.

Speaking to lawmakers who will vote to fill at least four seats on the Board of Regents, Josephine Finn gave her full-throated support of the state’s adoption of the Common Core learning standards and called high college remediation rates “shameful.” Acknowledging that implementation of the Common Core has drawn criticism, Finn warned against balking at the reforms just because they were controversial.

“There’s always turmoil in the midst of change,” Finn said. “Don’t let that throw you.”

The tone was surprising, given the anti-incumbent feeling that has built recently as criticism of the Regents has grown and elections to fill vacant seats have neared. The state teachers union and some Democratic lawmakers have said the state’s rollout of the Common Core has been so weak as to justify replacing members of the board.

Finn, the 23rd person interviewed for the openings, nodded to those concerns when she said she was open to the idea of detaching new Common Core-aligned state tests from high-stakes decisions about teachers and students. But she hedged on taking substantive positions, teasing lawmakers by saying that that they would learn where she stands after they vote her in.

“I wish you would just go ahead and put me on the board so I can get started,” she joked.

Finn — a small-town judge, weight loss consultant, and former community college professor from Sullivan County — hasn’t had much time to study the issues. Lawmakers interviewed more than 20 candidates in February, but Finn said she was approached about the possibility of joining the board only on Friday, the same day that a last-minute round of interviews was announced for today.

The Assembly and Senate will jointly convene at noon tomorrow to nominate and vote in candidates for the 17-member board. It’s still unclear if a Democrat-controlled voting bloc will have the minimum 107 votes for any single candidate. Several Democrats have said they won’t approve of any the four incumbents seeking reelection because of the Regents’ ongoing support for the state’s controversial implementation Common Core learning standards.

Finn’s sudden emergence appears to be a compromise effort by Assembly leaders to win over those Democrats. Ousting at least one member would be a way to appease frustrated elected officials who say they are powerless in the state legislature, which operates independently of the Regents, to respond to gripes from education stakeholders in their districts.

Finn, a resident of Monticello in Sullivan County, interviewed for James Jackson’s seat in the third Judicial District, which covers seven upstate counties. Jackson is a former principal and teacher who served in the North Colonie Central School District, near Albany, for more than four decades.

Jackson’s seat is seen as particularly vulnerable because many of the Assembly members in his district are newly elected and have no ties to his appointment in 2011.

“Delegations from a particular area carry a great deal of weight as to who’s nominated and who’s supported,” said Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Assemblywoman.

On Monday, several lawmakers prefaced their questions to Finn by saying they believed that the Regents had blindly followed State Education Department Commissioner John King’s recommendations up to now.

“They’re passive board members,” said Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee, of Rockland. “They’re board members that essentially allow staff to make decisions and accept those decisions without doing any kind of independent research or any kind of outreach.”

“What kind of board member will you be?” Jaffee asked Finn.

“What you see is what you get,” Finn replied. “You’ve heard me speak today. I’m not shy. … I’m not going to sit back and not say anything if I think that people aren’t getting the word out there.”

But some of Finn’s statements suggested she might not lead an insurgency to take education policies in a new direction, as some critics of the current board had hoped. From the outset, Finn said she strongly believed in the critical thinking skills that the Common Core standards are meant to hone. She spoke about her concerns as a black woman with low graduation rates for black and Hispanic students, a demographic whose Regents’ reform agenda is specifically focused on serving.

Asked about concerns that the tougher standards are damaging students’ self-esteem, Finn redirected the question toward a talking point that King often uses to defend the state’s aggressive implementation. She said the frustration of tougher coursework and tests in elementary and middle school was “nothing compared to” a community college student who must take high school courses because he isn’t prepared for college coursework. In New York, over 50 percent of students in two-year colleges take at least one remedial course, a statistic that King often highlights as an urgent reason to move forward with adopting tougher standards.

“I taught students who graduated from high school and I taught them English because they didn’t know grammar,” Finn said. “They didn’t know how to write a decent sentence. They had no vocabulary and they had no self esteem because of it.”

Not all Assembly members were as critical of the incumbents. Education Chair Kathleen Nolan said she is “comfortable will all the incumbents.” But she said that the Assembly’s recent passage of a bill that would alter teacher evaluations for two years while the state implements the Common Core was “adequate guidance” for Regents “about what we want them to do.”

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