The New York Board of Regents was designed in 1784 to provide K-16 integration, and it is the broadest educational governance body in the nation. The Regents’ scope of authority includes public and private elementary, secondary and higher education; the licensed professions, including medicine, nursing, law and accounting; libraries, museums, historical societies; and public television and radio stations. The New York Regents Exams began in the 19th century and have exerted a powerful K-16 influence. Regents are selected by the legislature for five-year terms with each legislator having one vote. Consequently, the Regents are not an integral part of the Governor’s executive branch and lack independent fiscal powers. The legislative selection method provides some political insulation, but also a remoteness and inaccessibility from the res t of state government. In many ways, the Regents are a fourth branch of New York State government.
However, the birth of the State University of New York (SUNY) system in the late 1940s led to a dramatic decline in the Regents’ attention to, and impact on, higher education. All colleges and universities outside the City University of New York (CUNY) system in New York City – public, non-profit independent, and for-profit proprietary – are members of the SUNY system; SUNY has budget authority over the state’s higher education appropriations. Every eight years, the Regents develop a Higher Education Plan that is subject to the Governor’s approval, but recently it has not been viewed as a K-16 policy that links the levels much more tightly. SUNY and CUNY are not tightly linked by the Regents plan (Bracco, 1997, pp. 198-228).
With its current disproportionate focus on K-12 issues, the Regents have retained one mechanism that aligns secondary and postsecondary education: the Regents Exams. When the exams were first conceived, student performance on these high school end-of-course-based exams was a factor in university admission and financial aid eligibility. But most New York financial aid is now need based. As the Regents exams’ purpose evolved to certify minimum standards for high school completion – and the SUNY system’s independence increased – Regents were used less frequently for SUNY admissions decisions. SUNY instead uses the SAT as an admissions factor. The Regents exams do still, however, provide high school students information about postsecondary academic content standards. Regents’ syllabi also provide a higher education oriented underpinning to high school course content in New York. Regents’ exams include essays and open-ended questions that are closer to higher education standards than multiple-choice exams. Moreover, CUNY, uses the K-12 Regents exams as its own placement exam, a policy that can reduce remediation by sending clear signals about college standards to high school students.
The lesson from New York’s experience is that a consolidated K-16 governance structure can help align K-16 academic content standards, but as we saw for other states, consolidation does not necessarily lead to the policy development that aligns key components of K-12 and postsecondary education (Callan, Kirst, Usdan, and Venezia, 2005). In particular, states need to pay attention to the authorities, particularly the budget authority, given to a K-16 consolidated structure in order to reach common goals of higher enrollment rates, lower remediation rates, and higher persistence rates.
If governance alone cannot bridge the K-12 postsecondary gap, what can? We surely cannot expect change to be effected spontaneously from within. The two levels of education have so little social contact among faculty, administrators, and policymakers that there is unlikely to be much social pressure to change the current condition. Perhaps K-16 governance mechanisms such as Florida’s can bring K-12 and postsecondary education together in a way that will lead to social incentives to move forward. But most likely, we will have to relay on policy levers, governance reform, and incentives to move towards closing the interlevel gap.