Regents to pilot new civics pathway for HS diploma, possible expansion statewide in 2022-2023

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May 14—High school students across the state may soon have a new path to earn their diploma by replacing one of five required Regents exams with a mix of coursework and civics-focused community service.

The new "civic readiness pathway," which will be piloted in around 50 districts next year, will join a growing list of so-called "4+1" graduation pathways, which enable students to replace one Regents exam with a set of content-area requirements. Other pathways include options for students to focus on science and technology, career and technical education, arts, world languages and humanities.

The Regents will consider approving a "seal of civic readiness" at its September meeting, opening the door to the new graduation pathway. To achieve the civic readiness seal, students would need to demonstrate both civic knowledge and civic participation through a mix of classes, research, service projects and internships and capstone school projects. Students can begin earning points to the civics seal in middle schools.

Regents board members and state education for years have sought ways to encourage a greater emphasis on civic participation in schools, citing the core need of school to educate citizens who can participate in elections and government.

"Our nation's public schools were founded to develop citizens with knowledge about the rights and responsibility of self-government," according to a state Department of Education rationale of the policy proposal. "The department is committed to empowering the civic agency of students and promoting civic readiness as part of their education."

State officials plan to present a formal rule on the civics seal and graduation pathway at the board's September meeting, before opening the pathway to all interested districts for the 2022-2023 school year if the pilot is successful. Districts will be asked to apply to the state to establish the pathway.

State Ed officials eye fall draft of new regulations for reviewing private school programs

State education officials also updated the Board of Regents on an ongoing effort to establish rules to ensure non-public schools in the state are providing students a "substantially equivalent" education to nearby public schools, as is required under state law.

Developing rules to implement the statutory requirement has proven difficult after state officials proposed regulations in July 2019 that faced fierce backlash in the private school community and raised concerns about public school administrators.

The board asked state Education Department staff to restart the process by engaging private school families and educators. At Monday's meeting, department staff summarized the findings of that public engagement and outlined the next steps, which could culminate in a new regulatory proposal this fall.

Officials outlined the public feedback and demonstrated the challenge of coming up with regulations to enact the state law while still respecting the unique position of nonpublic schools.

Private school advocates argued that nonpublic schools must be accountable to parents who choose to send their kids to those schools — often at a hefty price tag — according to the staff presentation. Nonpublic schools also exist in their own context, teaching a mix of standard curriculum and religious or other beliefs. That culture cannot always be understood by people not enmeshed in those cultures, according to the feedback.

Respondents to the calls for public input highlighted the potential conflict of empowering public school districts to review private schools within their boundaries to determine if those nonpublic schools provide students a "substantially equivalent" education. Those public schools may be competing for students or may not have the necessary background to review a specialized or religious school. People also raised concerns that a review process could strain positive relationships between public and private schools or create the perception that nonpublic schools were subordinate to the public school district.

And public school administrators also have concerns about being charged with reviewing nonpublic schools, citing limited resources, the threat of lawsuits and the risk of stirring up public backlash to voter-approved budget proposals.

"In developing regulations, the department and Board of Regents must recognize parents' right to exercise their faith and to direct their children's education and religious upbringing as well as the state's interest in ensuring an informed citizenry that is self-sufficient and capable of participating in society," officials wrote in summing up the balancing act sought in the forthcoming regulatory proposal.

Officials said they planned to use the public input to develop policy recommendations this summer and ultimately proposed regulations by the fall for the Regents to consider. Those proposed regulations would go up for public comment as well.