New York State Education Building Opening Ceremony
Dedication Ceremonies at the Opening of
the State Education Building in 1917

Legal Foundations of the Department and the University.
The unification act of 1904 made the Commissioner the "executive officer" of the Regents. He was given the power to organize the Department and appoint deputies as needed, and to supervise elementary and secondary education (a 1910 law extended this responsibility to higher education as well). The Regents retained their existing authority, including the legislative power to adopt rules and regulations to implement the laws relating to the University. Commissioner Draper believed that "bodies legislate, individuals execute," and under his strong leadership the University, in effect, became part of the Department.

After Draper's death in 1913, a rewriting of the Regents rules by Regent Pliny T. Sexton tended to make the University the primary administrative unit. However, the constitutional and statutory reorganization of state agencies in 1925-27 reestablished the Education Department as the administrative embodiment of the University of the State of New York. The Commissioner of Education is "president" of the University, that is, chief executive officer of the state's education system. However, the Constitution and the Education Law make the Regents the "head" of the Department. The Board of Regents elects a chancellor, who presides over its meetings and appoints its committees. The Regents appoint the Commissioner, who is "chief administrative officer" of the Department. They also appoint an executive deputy commissioner and approve the Commissioner's appointments of deputy, associate, and assistant commissioners; they may divide the department into divisions and bureaus, as recommended by the Commissioner.

The legal framework for education in New York is established by the state Constitution and by statutes passed by the Legislature. However, state law vests in the Regents and the Commissioner important legal functions. The Regents act as a quasi-legislative body to implement state law and policy relating to education. Their early "instructions" to academies and colleges began to be printed for distribution in 1830 and were compiled periodically as the "University Manual." Statutes relating to the Regents and institutions overseen by them were codified as the "University Law" in 1889. In a revision of the Regents rules in 1928, a clear distinction was made, for the first time, between those (general) rules and Commissioner's regulations, which are administrative rules for executing and enforcing the Regents rules and the statutes relating to education. Since 1942 the Commissioner's regulations have been published in book or loose-leaf format. The laws relating to education have been recodified only three times in the past century (1892-94, 1909-10, 1947), but the Education Law has been amended more often than any other title in the Consolidated Laws.

The sovereign authority to grant a charter of incorporation is ultimately vested in the Legislature. In 1784 the Legislature empowered the Regents to incorporate academies and colleges. This statutory authority was strengthened in 1853 and 1882, and extended in 1889 to libraries, museums, and other non-academic institutions of higher education. Since 1926 the Regents have also approved the incorporation, under general laws, of entities having an educational purpose. The Regents exercise a quasi-judicial function when they issue decisions and orders in professional discipline cases heard by the various professional boards.

The Commissioner of Education has the extraordinary power, not often employed, to issue an order withholding state aid or removing a school district officer or board, when there has been a wilful neglect of duty or violation of the law. The Commissioner regularly acts in a judicial capacity when he hears and decides appeals arising from official acts or decisions of school district meetings, boards, or officers. The Legislature first conferred this authority on the Superintendent of Common Schools in 1822, and the current statute dates essentially from 1864. The intent of the law is to provide a relatively simple administrative method of resolving disputes over fine points of school law, and relieve the courts of this business. During the nineteenth century appeals to the Superintendent often concerned issues such as school district boundaries, conduct of district meetings, and teacher contracts. Appeals could also involve civil rights. For example, in a number of cases the Superintendents of Common Schools, starting in 1837, barred sectarian religious exercises in public schools. Commissioner Draper in 1913 upheld the right of a woman to return to her teaching job after giving birth (the New York City Board of Education had charged her with "gross negligence by being absent to have a baby"). During recent years appeals to the Commissioner have typically concerned placement orders for children with disabilities, disciplinary proceedings against teachers or students, and irregular actions of school boards and district meetings.

The statute governing appeals originally declared that the decision was final and conclusive. However, the courts repeatedly held that this remarkable power was not unlimited, and that an appeal to the courts was possible if the decision was arbitrary or contrary to law. In 1976 the Legislature, displeased with several school integration decisions by Commissioner Nyquist, amended the law to explicitly permit appeals to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court from Commissioner's decisions, under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. Decisions of the Commissioner have been published since 1913. The separate volumes of Education Department Reports commenced in 1962.

During the mid-nineteenth century the Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction served as legal counsel. There was a staff attorney ("law clerk") after the 1880s. A law division was set up in the Education Department in 1904. During the 1920s and '30s the Counsel generally served as Deputy Commissioner. The Counsel's office provides legal advice and services regarding Commissioner's regulations, orders, and appeals; Regents' actions and rules; and pending legislation, contracts, court proceedings, and Department operations.

Department Organization, Management, and Planning

The great monument to Commissioner Andrew S. Draper is the Education Building, completed in 1912, whose funding he secured. Draper organized the Department in ways that had a lasting impact. As established in 1904, the Department had three assistant commissioners, for elementary, secondary, and higher education. There were seven divisions-accounts, compulsory attendance, examinations, inspections, law, records, and statistics. (The Library and Museum and the professional boards reported to the assistant commissioner for higher education.) Despite its new organization and new building, the Department continued old practices developed during the later nineteenth century. Inspections and examinations were the means by which the Regents had strengthened their authority over secondary schools and higher education. The examinations division (established 1889) and the inspections division (1890) continued their work with little change. The Department became known for an authoritarian attitude toward the "field." Statistical reports and Regents examination papers received minute scrutiny in Albany. Department inspectors regularly visited high schools, libraries, colleges, and 'special schools' serving Indians, juvenile delinquents, the retarded, and the insane. In 1911 the school inspectors were designated as specialists in academic subject areas, though they continued to visit and inspect high schools in assigned regions of the state. In 1915 most of the inspections division was merged into the examinations division, increasing further the already strong emphasis on high school programs. The Department had few experts on elementary education until the later 1930s, and the imbalance in favor of secondary education persisted into the 1950s.

The administration of Commissioner Frank P. Graves (1921-1940) may be termed the "golden age' of the State Education Department. It was an era of remarkable change in elementary and secondary education: state aid to rural and city school districts more than doubled; thousands of rural schools were consolidated and their one-room schools closed; standards for teacher education and certification were elevated; vocational education rapidly expanded; programs for special education and vocational rehabilitation for the handicapped initiated; and secondary education extended to the point where nearly half of students graduated from high school. However, the Department itself did not change as fast as the programs it oversaw. During the 1930s and '40s two major management studies of the Department pointed out systemic problems in its organization and operations. Some of the problems were resolved, others were not.

The Regents' Inquiry into the Character and Cost of Public Education (1935-38) was funded by a major grant from the General Education Board and chaired by Regent Owen D. Young, chief executive officer of General Electric. Numerous consultants collected data on public education programs outside New York City and also on Department operations. The Inquiry's major contributions were to endorse and promote the movement toward comprehensive education, and to effect a reorganization of the Department's management. In 1937 the Regents approved a new layer of managers associate commissioners in charge of public instruction (administratively linking elementary and secondary education), higher and professional education, and finance and administration. Over the next few years services to schools were improved by establishing new divisions of elementary and secondary education, each with its own bureau of curriculum development; a separate examinations division; a single bureau for education of mentally and physically handicapped children; and bureaus for school district centralization, school business management, and pupil guidance. The Inquiry's consultants urged the Department to "reduce service and regulatory activities to a minimum, and eliminate dictatorial administrative policies completely, particularly in dealing with local educational problems." (In 1946 a review of the Regents' Inquiry's recommendations noted that the Department had "sincerely tried during the past ten or more years to break down its authoritarian attitudes and to approach the schools with helpful consultative services.") The Regents' Inquiry declared that 'leadership based on research" should be the Department's aim. Accordingly the Department's research division (established in 1928) was expanded. This research unit designed some important new programs, such as BOCES in the late 1940s, and the regional library systems in the '50s. Until it was discontinued in the mid1960s, the division also conducted general research on pupil performance and school administration.

Between 1947 and 1951 a Temporary Commission on Coordination of State Activities (Wicks Commission) made an exhaustive survey of the Department. The commission found some of the same serious operational inefficiencies identified by the Regents' Inquiry (for example, in the examinations division, the State Library's cataloging unit, and the Regents' then-numerous committees). These problems were eventually corrected, but the Department did not reduce the number of its major program areas from eleven to four, as the Wicks Commission urged. During the 1950s the Department's administration focused its attention on the challenges of growth-building schools and recruiting and paying teachers in an era of rapidly-rising enrollments.

The 1960s brought new organizational problems as a result of the Department's rapid expansion. A steady increase in federal aid, particularly under the National Defense Education Act of 1958, the Manpower Training Act of 1962, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, brought a near doubling of the Department's staff (1,989 in 1960, 3,847 in 1970). A ten-story annex to the Education Building was completed in 1960. The Department acquired additional space in the One Commerce Plaza (Twin Towers") office building in 1970. (These facilities brought together Department staff formerly scattered in several locations around downtown Albany.) After a major reorganization in 1963, four new assistant commissioners reported to the associate commissioner for elementary, secondary, and continuing education. New associate commissioners were appointed for cultural education (1958), research and special studies (1961), and finance and management services (1964). Deputy commissioners began to be added to the administrative hierarchy in the late 1960s, eventually replacing the associate commissioners.

The first sign of fiscal stringency appeared in 1969, when the Governor's budget proposal recommended a five per cent cut for all agencies. The state's fiscal crisis burgeoned in the mid-1970s; between 1975 and 1980 the Department's work force dropped by over one thousand positions, about 30 per cent. Since the early 1980s the Department has had between three and four thousand employees. The smaller Department has a simpler organizational structure, resembling that of the 1950s. With the growth in state appropriations slowing, more and more Department staff have been shifted to federal funding, which itself was jeopardized by the mid-1990s. During the period 1985-90 several significant Department programs-professional licensure and discipline, teacher certification, proprietary school supervision, tuition and maintenance for handicapped children in the Rome and Batavia state schools and state-supported private schools, records management services, and certain State Museum activities began to be funded from special revenue accounts.

The Department's administrative and support functions such as personnel, payroll, accounting, auditing, public relations, printing, building and grounds were originally located in a division of accounts. It was renamed the division of administration in 1907, relieved of its fiscal responsibilities in 1921, and headed by an assistant commissioner after 1932. A separate public relations office was set up in 1948. Most Department employees were (and are) civil servants, tested and appointed under rules of the Civil Service Commission (established 1883). The Education Department, like other agencies, was responsible for setting its own rules on employee conduct, attendance, and leave. (The rules varied from agency to agency, causing much confusion.) The Legislature passed appropriation bills for salaries and other expenses. The state had no budgeting process until 1928, when the governor first presented an annual budget proposal to the Legislature. Department officials complained that salaries for many of its job titles were set lower than for the same titles in other agencies, or for jobs in urban schools and libraries. This situation was improved in 1937, when the Legislature enacted a revised, standardized title, grade, and salary structure for all state agencies.

The Depression years of the 1930s brought pay cuts for employees in higher salary grades, but no layoffs. The war years of the early 1940s saw many Department employees leave for military service. The later 1940s. and '50s were an era of slow but steady growth in most areas of the Department. During the mid-1960s the Department of Civil Service delegated to the Department's Office of Business Management and Personnel, as it did to other agencies, new responsibilities for recruiting employees and developing examinations. During the 1960s it was difficult to fill all of the Department's many new professional positions; in some fiscal years the Department did not expend all of its personal service funds (much of which now came from federal aid). In 1967 the Public Employees' Fair Employment Act (Taylor Law) authorized public employees to organize unions to negotiate the terms and conditions of employment The Civil Service Employees Association was formed to represent state workers. In 1979 the Public Employees Federation became the collective bargaining agent for professional, scientific, and technical employees formerly represented by CSEA.

Starting in 1904 a division (later bureau) of statistics manually collected and tabulated data on school district enrollments and finances, and used the data to calculate state aid. A bureau of apportionment processed claims for state aid (including, after 1925, transportation and building aid) and certified them to the Comptroller for payment from monies appropriated by the Legislature. The later 1920s brought massive increases in state aid to school districts, and a complex new system of equalizing and allocating that aid. The Department's fiscal and state aid operations were accordingly reorganized. A division of finance, including the accounting and auditing functions, had been set up in 1921. As a result of an outside audit done in 1928, a reorganized finance division was headed by a new assistant commissioner and included the bureaus of apportionment and statistics. The Division was also made responsible for preparing Department budget requests. The fiscal units remained stable for decades (the Wicks Commission report of 1951 found the apportionment bureau to be "efficient and well-administered").

The increasing complexity of education finance during and after the 1960s required major changes in state aid, budgeting, accounting, and auditing. Separate state and federal aid units were set up in 1965, with the influx of federal aid under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. In 1966 the Department instituted a new accounting system (promoted by the governor and developed by an inter-agency group) for budgeting, appropriating, and accounting of funds on the basis of programs as well as objects of expenditures. Heads of major program areas became responsible for managing their expenditures. A budget coordination unit was established in 1970. A cost-accounting system was developed by the end of the decade in order to charge federal funds for overhead services. After 1983 a centralized administrative audit unit for external programs was set up, including the audit function from the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. In 1990 an internal audit section was created.

The Department has adopted management planning only in recent years. In 1966 Commissioner James E. Allen, Jr., initiated an agency-wide planning process, made urgent by the influx of new federal funds. A consultant analyzed customer and staff views, and the assistant commissioners compiled briefing books on their programs. No plan appeared, probably because of the New York City school decentralization crisis. During the 1980s the Department was required to report quarterly to the Budget Division key statistical indicators of agency activities (what use was made of the data is unclear). Major program planning started in 1984 in the Office of Cultural Education, using various processes es and formats. VESID adopted an overall operational plan in 1990; significant planning and operational improvements have occurred in some other areas. Following a critical review by the Rockefeller Institute in 1995, newly-selected Commissioner Richard P. Mills committed the Department to developing an overall strategic plan to clarify the agency's mission and improve services to its many customers.

Automated office equipment-first mechanical, later electronic-has transformed the Department's work, both in support and program functions. A central stenographic and typing pool using mechanical equipment functioned from 1925 to about 1968. The Department's first central mail room, complete with postage meter, was opened in 1935. Dial telephones were installed in 1938. That same year the Department acquired IBM punch card and tabulating machines to produce school district statistical reports. Several other functions were automated during the 1940s and '50s. A division of electronic data processing was established in 1962, and two years later the Department acquired a General Electric 225 mainframe computer with 8 kilobytes of system memory (the present Unisys A16 has in use in the areas of state aid, school statistics, vocational rehabilitation, professional licensing, Regents scholarship exams, and the State Library. Personal computers arrived in the early 1980s. The State Education Department Network (SEDNET) now includes mainframe, mini- and micro-computers, file servers, terminals, and other devices connected by routers on a "backbone" of fiber-optic cable. By 1995 the Department offered several "homepage" access points on the Internet.

Paper forms and files remain voluminous.The Department has had its own printing facilities since 1921. The plant in the basement of the Education Building received modern offset equipment in the mid-1960s. Today the central printing plant in the Cultural Education Center produces Regents and other examinations and Department forms and publications, altogether several million items each year. Publications services and forms design are provided by Department staff.

Patriotic and Moral Education

At various times the Legislature has passed laws committing the Regents and the Department to programs in support of patriotism, morality, and/or religion. Quite noncontroversial are the laws requiring schools to display the American flag (1898), hold patriotic exercises (1918), and use a pledge of allegiance to the flag (1956). Other laws were or became very controversial. A 1917 statute required the dismissal of a public school employee committing treason or sedition. Another law passed during World War I directed the Commissioner to ban textbooks containing matter "disloyal" to the United States. A law briefly in force during the post-war "Red Scare" required that teacher certificates be issued only to those who could show they were "loyal and obedient" to the state and federal governments (the Regents unanimously opposed this legislation). A more lasting legacy of the Red Scare was state censorship of motion pictures, which began in 1921. The Regents were given this responsibility in 1926. The Department's motion picture division licensed all commercial films shown in the state and edited or rejected films found to be "indecent, inhuman, tending to incite to crime, immoral or tending to corrupt morals, or sacrilegious." This program ended in 1965, after the U.S. Supreme Court declared New York's film censorship violated the constitutional guarantee of free speech and expression.

The 1930s, '40s, and early '50s, an era of competing political ideologies worldwide, brought recurring efforts to safeguard public education from perceived political threats from the left, or right. After 1934 school teachers and administrators were required to take a loyalty oath. A 1939 law mandated the dismissal of any educator in a public school or college who advocated the violent overthrow of lawful government. This act was aimed at the New York City school system, where a communist faction had taken control of the small teachers' union in 1935. (The rival Teachers' Guild later became the United Federation of Teachers.) The Feinberg Law of 1949 declared that "subversives' had 'infiltrated" the public schools; it required the Regents to fist subversive organizations and adopt rules to enforce the 1917 and 1939 acts. The Regents established a procedure for reporting disloyal school employees and provided a modicum of due process for the accused persons. The Feinberg Law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952. Over the next few years several hundred New York City teachers who were former communists resigned or were dismissed, after they refused to implicate others. In 1956 Commissioner Allen issued an order in an appeal case, in effect permitting former (but not current) members of subversive organizations to hold professional jobs in the public schools. During the 1960s New York's teacher loyalty acts of 1917 and 1939 were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 'Blaine Amendment" to the state Constitution (1894) forbids use of public monies to support religious schools, except for the expenses of state "visitation and inspection." However, an amendment adopted in 1938 permits public support for transportation costs for pupils attending non-public schools. That same year the Board of Regents split its vote on the issue of "released time" for public school children to attend religious instruction and observance. During the 1950s the Regents countenanced the practice, and even approved a brief "non-denominational" prayer to be used in schools. The Constitutional Convention of 1967 proposed the repeal of the Blaine amendment, a proposal endorsed by the Board of Regents. (Largely because of this provision, the proposed Constitution was rejected by the voters.) In 1970 the Legislature authorized spending public monies for non-public (mostly religious) schools, for testing, reporting, pupil services, building maintenance, and some tuition costs for poor children. These provisions were declared to violate the constitutional separation of church and state, but the courts upheld a more limited act which authorized reimbursement of the actual cost of tests and reports required by the state.


Last Updated: December 8, 2008 11:56 AM