A new commissioner takes the helm at NYS Education Department

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent Gardner Mary Ellen EliaNewly appointed NYS Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia will require the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job, the confidence of Donald Trump and the guile of Machiavelli to succeed in her new job. The divisions both between and within stakeholder groups have never been deeper.

First, she has to figure out who she’s working for. Is there a more complicated reporting relationship in state government? The Commissioner of Education is hired by the NYS Board of Regents. Which is appointed by the NYS Legislature. Not the NYS Senate or the NYS Assembly, but the entire legislature sitting in joint session. As there are 150 Members of the Assembly but only 63 Senators, the Assembly really makes the decision. Since 2009, the Chancellor (the person who leads the 17-member Board of Regents) has been Merryl Tisch, ally of the formerly-all-powerful Sheldon Silver. After Silver lost his post, the Assembly has shown more independence, replacing two regents who were supportive of Tisch and her endorsement of the Common Core and strong teacher accountability. If you have to report to a committee of 17, you’d better hope that the committee is either unified or strongly led, conditions that appear to be waning.

Did I mention the Governor? No? That’s not an error. The Commissioner of Education is the only cabinet-level position that isn’t a gubernatorial appointment. The Governor has no official influence over education policy. Official influence. He does exercise considerable control over that pesky NYS budget, however. So Elia has to go hat-in-hand to the Budget Division for funds to run her vast department—SeeThroughNY shows about 3,400 positions for 2014 (FYI, the site reports 5,300 positions for 2008, back when Rick Mills was Commissioner). Although the Legislature ultimately must pass the budget, this governor has achieved Master of the Universe status at budget time.

CuomoAnd in this last budget, Cuomo used his budget power to influence education policy, driving through significant changes on the use of state tests to evaluate teachers, teacher tenure & certification, options for failing schools, and entrance requirements for teacher education programs. Technically, it was the Legislature that passed these changes—but only with Governor Cuomo holding a gun to the legislative head. Commissioner Elia can hardly say, “Gee, Governor, I don’t work for you.”

Press releases have emphasized that she began her career as a teacher in Western New York, which has prompted tepid praise of her selection by the teachers unions. John King, former Commissioner, had a rocky relationship with teachers throughout his tenure. In Hillsborough, Florida, Elia, as superintendent, pushed through a teacher evaluation system, merit pay attached, that was based on measures of student achievement, a flash point for the unions. As New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) prominently supported the state test opt-out movement, Elia must either change her mind (and the governor’s!) about teacher evaluation or find herself taking over King’s standing with the union, too.

The winds of change may be blowing for NYSUT: The Supreme Court just agreed to hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that challenges “agency shop” rules for public employees. If the court sides with the plaintiffs, the teachers unions will no longer be able to collect dues from nonmembers, a change that will radically reduce the influence of the unions on state policy.

optoutThe opt-out movement, which reduced student participation in the state’s testing program this spring by more than 50% in some districts, highlights divisions among parents, another key stakeholder group for Elia. As I’ve said before in this column, the reasons parents give for opting out run the gamut—some are opposed to testing of any kind; others oppose the use of tests to evaluate teachers; others oppose either Common Core or how Common Core has been implemented in NYS; still others are simply protesting the amount of time testing takes away from instruction and the anxiety this prompts with their children. Like Humpty Dumpty, consensus supporting state tests lies in pieces. Elia must try to put it back together.

Common Core runs like a fault line through every stakeholder relationship. Elia supported Common Core in Florida, but found the state’s implementation wanting, a much-repeated theme in NYS. Legislators, superintendents, business groups, teachers, and parents can be found on both sides of this debate.

Is she ready for the challenge? As Superintendent of the Hillsborough School District in Florida (which includes Tampa) she was voted the state’s Superintendent of the Year for 2015. And was almost simultaneously fired by the Hillsborough school board. Yep, that sounds like New York. Welcome back, Ms. Elia.

vaderNOTE: Commissioner Elia’s first big decision was just announced—she’s ditching testmaker Pearson for smaller competitor Questar. Pearson has few defenders—testing supporters wince at some of Pearson’s well-publicized fumbles. Detractors see the company as the Darth Vader of education—emblematic of everything wrong with testing, standardized curricula, and the for-profit education services sector.