Who Is In Charge

Education groups with opposing views welcome incoming Commissioner Elia

The longtime educator known for placing a strong emphasis on student test scores who became New York’s new education chief Tuesday received a warm welcome from groups that typically take opposing sides in education debates, though critics of standardized tests called her appointment a mistake.

MaryEllen Elia, the former superintendent of a Tampa-area school district who taught in schools in Florida and New York, drew praise Tuesday from teachers unions for her collaborative approach. At the same time, groups that endorse teacher ratings that factor in student test scores and often clash with the teachers unions also applauded her appointment, with one calling her “an inspired choice.”

But steadfast critics of such “high-stakes” testing noted that Elia oversaw a $100 million grant in her Hillsborough County, Florida school district that involved tougher teacher evaluations, and pointed to news reports saying the district had told the grantmakers that they planned to fire the bottom 5 percent of teachers each year. Those critics predicted that if Elia continues to use test scores to rate teachers and make other important decisions about schools, the record number of parents who boycotted the state tests last month will only grow next year.

“If MaryEllen Elia is state commissioner, will she raise the stakes on testing?” influential education historian and high-stakes testing critic Diane Ravitch wrote on her blog. “If so, don’t be surprised if 400,000 students refuse the tests next year.”

Here are some of the reactions to Elia’s appointment Tuesday as commissioner of the New York State Education Department:

From Mayor Bill de Blasio:

On behalf of 1.1 million New York City public school children and their families, I congratulate and welcome our new State Education Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia. As an educator and a leader, she has proven herself ready for the task at hand, and we look forward to working together on vital reforms to transform our schools and lift up students in every neighborhood across the city.

From New York State United Teachers president Karen Magee:

It is vitally important for an education commissioner to respect teachers, to trust those working in public education and to listen — truly listen — to those in the field doing the hard work of teaching the state’s students, particularly those who have special needs, are still learning English or live in poverty. This is a challenging time for public education and its educators and there is a lot of hard work ahead. We are encouraged that Commissioner Elia is an educator with decades of experience as both a teacher in New York’s public schools and a superintendent in public education, and that she has strong academic credentials from our State University system.

We look forward to a collaborative, productive relationship with Commissioner Elia as we tackle, among other issues, how to end the over-reliance on standardized testing and to ensure that New York has a fair and meaningful evaluation system that focuses on professional development and helping teachers to improve. On top of this, we invite Commissioner Elia to join us in fighting for the equitable funding that our public schools need, especially those serving our most vulnerable student populations.

From Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the national union:

MaryEllen understands that you can only reclaim public education by giving educators the support they need to do their jobs well. As superintendent in Hillsborough County, Fla., she took to heart the adage ‘Do it with us, not to us.’ As everyone knows, our union is opposed to high-stakes testing and value-added model, but even when MaryEllen applied it as required under Florida law, she made collaboration her mantra. And as a result, even when the going got tough in Florida, she was able to work with multiple stakeholders to do what was best for Hillsborough students.

From Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s teachers union:

Our folks down in Florida who have worked with her have said she was extremely open to making sure teachers felt respected and that their voice was always part of any debates. We hope to have a great relationship with her as we move forward.

From New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña:

I congratulate Chancellor Tisch and the Board of Regents on the appointment of MaryEllen Elia as State Education Commissioner. Commissioner Elia began her career as a classroom teacher and, throughout her many years as an educator and a Wallace superintendent, she has exhibited tremendous leadership with a record of results, particularly in meeting the unique needs of English Language Learners. She is a remarkable educator and I am confident that her work will facilitate improved educational opportunities for children across New York City and New York State. I look forward to working with her on behalf of all our City’s children and families.

From High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that advocates for the Common Core standards:

MaryEllen Elia is an inspired choice by the Board of Regents – bringing together both decades of education experience, including as a teacher in New York, and a dedication to preparing students for the challenges of the 21st Century. Elia, a Buffalo native, has demonstrated a strong commitment to Common Core standards. We urge her to continue that commitment here in New York where the standards are taking root in improved test scores, higher high school graduation rates and better teaching and learning in the classroom.  We look forward to working closely together with Elia in the years to come and bringing us closer to our common goal – great schools that prepare all our children for success, no matter where they come from.

From Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance For Quality Education, an advocacy group aligned with the New York state and city teachers unions:

The Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) would like to congratulate the newly appointed New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. One thing is clear, for any Commissioner to succeed in New York State they will need to listen to parents and treat them as partners in public education. No skill will be more important for Commissioner Elia than the ability to work with parents. Collaboration with parents is vital to improving struggling schools, promoting educational equity, addressing the over emphasis on high-stakes testing, and increasing charter school accountability. She comes from a large and diverse school district that contains urban, suburban and rural schools we hope this experience will equip here to support the many and diverse needs of New York’s 2.7 million students. We look forward to working with Commissioner Elia and we welcome her back to New York State.

From Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that supports teacher evaluations tied to student test scores:

The Board of Regents made a strong choice in selecting MaryEllen Elia as New York State’s next Education Commissioner. She is a nationally recognized leader in education, who has a record of accomplishment in helping boost the achievement for low-income children. As a former educator herself, she knows firsthand what it takes for schools to succeed. We believe MaryEllen Elia will lead the way to give all of New York’s students the schools they deserve.

From Diane Ravitch’s blog

So, New York, once a bastion of liberalism, is getting a state commissioner who supports value-added testing and school choice, like John King. This aligns with Governor Cuomo’s agenda of “breaking up the public school monopoly” and using test scores to evaluate teachers.

The biggest news in the state in the past year was the historic success of the Opt Out movement. Last year, 60,000 students refused the state tests. This year, nearly 200,000 did. If MaryEllen Elia is state commissioner, will she raise the stakes on testing? If so, don’t be surprised if 400,000 students refuse the tests next year.

From Jeremiah Kittredge, CEO of Families for Excellent Schools:

MaryEllen Elia’s exceptional record in Florida makes her a strong candidate to lead New York out of its failing schools crisis.

With over 50,000 children in Hillsborough County learning outside the district school system, Commissioner Elia has shown that she values the role of high-quality charter schools and parent choice.

From James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center: 

The charter sector is looking forward to building a strong working relationship with incoming Commissioner Elia. I’m confident that she will treat all public schools equally as a matter of policy and ensure that the voices of lower income parents demanding more and better public school options are heard loud and clear.

From Evan Stone, co-founder of Educators 4 Excellence, a group that advocates for teacher involvement in policy decisions:

We congratulate Ms. Elia and are excited to work with her to continue to improve New York State’s education system. We’re hopeful that, if she is confirmed by the entire Board of Regents, Ms. Elia will prioritize teacher voice. Her work with Hillsborough County’s teachers’ union gives us confidence that she will do just that.

We are encouraged by the appointment of someone who has a record of working collaboratively with teachers to implement shifts on critical issues like evaluation and Common Core. On the critical issue of teacher evaluation, our members support delaying the implementation of the new system so that lawmakers can take extra time to devise a meaningful set of measures that can serve as a tool for professional growth. We hope the new Commissioner will take the lead in pushing for an evaluation system that is fair, rigorous, and focuses on helping teachers improve.

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”


Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says


“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.

Full circle

On her first day as Denver superintendent, Susana Cordova visits the school where she was a student

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova addresses students at Barnum Elementary School on Jan. 7, her first day as Denver superintendent.

At a morning assembly marking the first day of Susana Cordova’s tenure as Denver schools superintendent, the most telling moment was not the speeches from current and former mayors pledging their support, or even the remarks from Cordova herself.

It was when Cordova whispered in the ear of third-grader Grace Sotelo. Grace was one of four students chosen to present Cordova with gifts, including a bouquet of flowers. Afterward, the third-grader stepped up for a brief turn at the microphone.

“Doctor — ” Grace said, then paused.

“Cordova,” the new superintendent whispered to her.

“Cordova,” Grace said. “We are proud of your success of being our — ”

“Superintendent,” Cordova whispered.

“Our superintendent,” Grace said. “We know you’ll be the best superintendent we’ve ever had.”

The interaction served as a reminder that the district’s new superintendent started her career in the classroom, teaching students like Grace.

The location of the event was also symbolic. It was held at the school that Cordova, a lifelong Denver resident, attended as a child: Barnum Elementary in southwest Denver. A printout of her fourth-grade school photo — straight-cut bangs, dimples, and a striped turtleneck — hung on a wall behind the risers.

PHOTO: Courtesy Denver Public Schools
Cordova in fourth grade

“When I was a student here at Barnum, one of my very favorite things to do was read,” Cordova told the first-, second-, and third-graders sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the gym floor.

“One of my favorite authors was a woman named Judy Blume. And she wrote a lot of good books. Maybe you’ve read some of them. But Judy Blume also said something that I think is really important. She said, ‘Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch.’

“That’s what education does. It touches lives. And I want to make sure that our fingerprints — all our fingerprints — are forever part of the story, so that our students are successful.”

Cordova, 52, officially assumed the role of superintendent of Denver Public Schools on Monday, making her the top boss of Colorado’s largest school district with about 93,000 students. Cordova was selected by the school board last month after a four-month national search. She succeeds Tom Boasberg, who served as superintendent for nearly 10 years.

Cordova was an internal candidate. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, she has worked for the district since 1989 as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. For the past two years, she served as deputy superintendent under Boasberg.

Cordova was the sole finalist for the top job, a decision that sparked accusations from some community members that the search was a sham. In choosing her, the school board noted her depth of experience, her willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, and how she fit many of the criteria students, parents, and teachers wanted in the next superintendent.

Among them: Cordova is an educator. The previous two superintendents came from the business world. She is also Latina. The previous two superintendents were white men. Only 25 percent of Denver students are white, while 54 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.

Cordova is also bilingual in English and Spanish, and started her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher. Currently, more than a third of Denver students are learning English as a second language. The most common first language spoken by students is Spanish.

Denver students, on the whole, have made academic gains over the past decade. Many people credit the progress to controversial strategies such as replacing struggling schools.

But Cordova faces several big challenges as superintendent, including narrowing persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and those from wealthier ones.

Last year, 69 percent of Denver students from high- and middle-income families met expectations on state literacy tests, compared with just 27 percent of students from low-income families. About two-thirds of Denver students belong to the latter category.

While Cordova has emphasized the importance of closing those gaps, she said on Monday that her sole focus for the next two weeks will be reaching an agreement on teacher pay with the Denver teachers union. The two sides have been negotiating changes to the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, for more than a year. The union has threatened to hold a strike vote if the two sides don’t reach an agreement by Jan. 18.

The union and the district are set to return to the negotiating table Tuesday for the start of several all-day bargaining sessions. Cordova said she plans to attend every one, a departure from her predecessor’s approach to contract negotiations.

“I’m very optimistic we can get to a good solution,” Cordova said in an interview following the event at Barnum. “My closest friends are DPS teachers. I deeply understand and know the complexities of what it means to be a teacher in the district.”

Toward the end of the interview, after the students had returned to class and the custodial staff was stacking the chairs, Cordova was approached by two women with district lanyards around their necks. They introduced themselves as teacher’s aides who’d worked for the district for more than 20 years each. One of them held out her cell phone.

“Could we have a picture with you?”

Yes, Cordova said. In the gymnasium of her old elementary school, festooned for the occasion with yellow and blue crepe paper, the new superintendent stood between them and smiled.