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Albany statehouse.

Albany statehouse.

Chalkbeat file photo

After New York’s education commissioner resigns, discussion turns to the qualities — and politics — of a new chief

In the wake of MaryEllen Elia’s abrupt decision to step down as state education commissioner, many are looking ahead to what New York’s next education chief could be like.

The guesses include someone who is more aligned with the state teachers union, more skeptical of the role of standardized tests, or hyper-focused on improving outcomes for students of color. Those are clear priorities held by the state’s 17-person Board of Regents, which gets to choose Elia’s replacement. 

“They will be looking for somebody who thinks like them and has similar political leanings,” said Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Board Association. 

The Regents have yet to disclose details of how they’ll search for a new commissioner and don’t want to publicly share the qualities they will be seeking in one until they discuss the process with each other, said Regent Roger Tilles, who represents Long Island. Their next official meeting is in September, but officials could call a special meeting before then. Besides Tilles and Regent Nan Mead, who declined to comment, no other Regent responded to phone calls or emails for this story. 

“We were sort of blindsided timing-wise and didn’t really have the time to hear from each other on what kinds of things we’re looking for,” Tilles said. 

By many accounts, Elia’s resignation was surprising only because of that timing. Public discourse between the Regents and Elia was generally civil, and they often aligned on big priorities. Still, it was becoming clear to the state’s education community that she and some board members were increasingly at odds on certain policy matters, such as oversight of private schools, accountability measures for struggling public schools, and even Elia’s choice of a replacement for a top-level deputy who recently left for a job in another state. Some Regents have expressed feeling out of the loop during board presentations, even as Elia asserted that they had been exposed to that information multiple times before. 

“We had several issues over the last year, as you know, where the Regents had a different opinion than her,” said Tilles.

Elia arrived to the department in 2015 under a different political landscape. She was chosen by a board led by then-Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who championed the Common Core standards, school choice, and using test score data to guide policymaking. But Tisch left about a year after Elia took the reins and even before Tisch departed, several Regents who saw eye to eye with her were replaced. Elia was left to contend with a more skeptical board that was steadily shifting from the education policies of the past. 

The Regents members now in place “might well have chosen a different person for commissioner” had they had the chance, said Bob Lowry, deputy director for advocacy and communication at the state’s Council of School Superintendents. 

Still, Elia went on to serve as a bridge figure. Four years later, many credit her with helping to calm the waters as the state grappled with a range of concerns and criticism around testing and evaluating educators in New York. Under her tenure, she oversaw a moratorium on linking certain student test scores to teacher evaluations, changes that began to cool the testing opt-out movement, and the creation of several pathways to completing requirements for high-school exit exams with the goal of making graduation more accessible to more students.

But now the Regents can choose a leader who more aggressively pushes forward on aligned goals, chief among them making sure the state’s public schools are doing enough to support students of color. At meetings over the past year, discussion repeatedly surfaced over how a policy could be tweaked or studied to improve outcomes for New York’s black and Hispanic students. 

“It’s apparent among the Regents that there’s great concern about better serving diverse student populations, so I would think finding someone who is said to have a track record of attentiveness to those concerns would be a priority,” Lowry said. 

While the Every Student Succeeds Act, a federal law, requires New York state to administer standardized tests, Lowry said it’s possible the Regents will also search for a candidate who will be open to searching for alternatives to assessments — at least to the extent federal dictates allow. 

The state teachers union wants the Regents to consider its feedback and that from other education advocacy groups on what qualities the board should seek in a new commissioner, said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of New York State United Teachers. DiBrango is hoping for someone who would be willing to partner with the union on reforming standardized tests for grades three through eight, increase the state’s teacher workforce, and boost diversity among its educators. 

Kremer, from the association of school boards, wants the Regents to ask candidates not only how they would improve educational programming for students throughout the state, but also how they’d address a staff shortage within the department itself — a problem state officials have raised before as hampering their work — and if they can engage with districts across the state, which he said Elia was adept at.

Kremer also echoed a concern about the state teachers union having sway over the Regents’ hiring process, potentially leading to a commissioner who may be more solicitous of union interests than those of principals or superintendents, and hoped that the process wouldn’t be subject to political influence. The Regents are appointed by the state legislature, home to strong union allies. 

For the teachers union to have a “seat at the table” is not a bad thing, DiBrango said. “Any kind of discussion around it being a negative to have educators at the table is just something that we will not allow to continue because, simply, it’s an outdated notion.”

The board’s policymaking has often corresponded with educators’ interests, Regents board member Tilles said, but the union “doesn’t come to me and ask me to do anything,” he added.

The potential influence of the legislature — even indirectly — can’t be ignored, said David Bloomfield, professor of educational leadership, law, and policy at the CUNY Grad Center and Brooklyn College. Regents are jointly elected by the Senate and Assembly, but because of sheer numbers, the Assembly’s Democrats effectively control the process. 

“It’s the speaker of the Assembly who holds the keys to the kingdom and controls the appointment of all the Regents,” Bloomfield said. “So I think we can see an incoming commissioner who resonates with the political agenda of both the Chancellor Betty Rosa and the Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. That would seem to predict a much more progressive and assertive agenda than Elia’s.”

Sen. Shelly Mayer, who oversees the senate’s education committee, and Sen. John Liu, who chairs the Senate’s education committee for New York City, said the new commissioner should expect a lot more knocks on the door from the state legislature. Liu said the Senate expects to be more active in examining state education policies, boosting public school funding, and “everything imaginable” that can be considered by the legislative process. 

“The reality is the legislature, or perhaps just the Senate, has not been as engaged in education issues for many years,” Liu said. 

For now the path forward is murky. The board will likely begin a national search for Elia’s replacement in the “near future,” according to a spokesperson for the state education department, but it’s not clear whether the board will choose to hire a search firm or how long the process could take. 

In the meantime, the board has tapped Executive Deputy Commissioner Beth Berlin to oversee the department. It took about six months to hire Elia after her predecessor, John King, decided to step down — meaning the wait for a new commissioner could be a long one.