NYS Education Commissioner Resigns (to move to another “Educational Opportunity”): Should the Next Commissioner Be an Innovator, a Reformer, an Administrator?

The July meeting of the Board of Regents is usually a discussion of key policy issues to address in the upcoming school year. The issue for the 19-20 school year has been bubbling for a few years: high school graduation requirements; with the underlying question: Do the current requirements adequately prepare students for higher education and/or the world of work? (Read Chalkbeat report here); a yet to be appointed blue ribbon commission will explore over the next school year.

After a few hours of discussion Maryellen Elia, the commissioner, read a statement, after four years in the position she is resigning to accept “another education opportunity.”  The members of the Board were shocked. (Read Chalkbeat report here)

The position of New York State commissioner of education is a complex and, at times, frustrating position.

New York State has a unique method of selecting the commissioner: the seventeen member Board of Regents who are “elected” at a combined meeting of both houses of the legislature, effectively the Democratic majority, hires the commissioner.

In most states the commissioner is selected by the governor, or, a board of education selected by the governor. The higher education governing structures, the CUNY and SUNY boards are appointed by the governor and select the chancellors of the systems.

The commissioner is only responsible to the Board of Regents, although dependent on the legislature and the governor for funding and laws that may change/amend/eliminate policies determined by the Board. It is an awkward structure.

Criticisms of actions of the commissioner are widespread due to complex policy issues.

  • Opt-Out parents demand that the state abandon state-wide testing that is required by federal statute. To challenge the federal law could jeopardize federal funding to the state.(Read Long Island Opt-Out comments re Elia resignation announcement here).
  • Should the state require that religious schools provide a level of education “comparable” to education required for all public schools?
  • Is the commissioner simply complying with the law or too lenient in addressing the reauthorization of charter schools?
  • Are the requirements for teacher preparation programs adequately preparing the next generation of teachers?
  • What is the role of the commissioner in integrating schools in New York State? For some, it is not the role of the commissioner, for others, a far more aggressive posture is required
  • Should the state take direct action in increasing numbers of teachers and supervisors of color?
  • Should the state provide a curriculum on each grade and subject, or, continue the policy that curriculum is a local matter?
  • Should the commissioner intervene aggressively in low performing school districts, and, if so, does the state have the capacity to actually manage local school districts?

And the list could go on and on.

The opt-out controversy is a prime example. New York State is unique; almost all states do not have opt-out provisions in regulation or law. The feds require a 95% student participation rate in each school; if the participation rate is lower an action plan to increase participation is required. If states refuse to comply with the federal regs the feds could withhold federal dollars, funds that go to high poverty schools, not the opt-out schools. The opt-outs argue the feds do not have the authority, and, if they try the state could intervene in the courts to prevent the actions.

I don’t know the answers, I don’t know if anyone knows the answers.

I have suggested that the commissioner establish alternative assessment pilots in schools or school districts across the state. New Hampshire has a federal waiver to use performance tasks that may replace state tests. Read a prior post that explores alternative assessments here.

The commissioner is reviled by the Opt-Outs.

The Yeshiva parents are livid; the decision of the commissioner to force “comparable” education standards, they argue, infringes their First Amendment rights. Or, should religious schools simply not take any state funding?

The state teacher union, the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has been dueling with the commissioner for many months over teacher evaluation questions.

John King was popular in Washington, and left the position of commissioner to become the secretary of education. He was admired by some and abhorred by others.

I am surprised by the suddenness of the commissioner’s announcement; however, upon reflection, not surprised.

Newsday muses about the background politics. (“Behind the Lines“)

What happens next?

Beth Berlin, a current deputy will be the acting commissioner until a commissioner is selected.

The usual process is to use a headhunter to solicit candidates.

Do you seek a high profile candidate, perhaps a commissioner from another state?

A high profile educator from a foundation or university?

A senior, experienced superintendent from within New York State?

Is the selection solely the role of the Board of Regents or will Board involve union and parent advocates in the process?

As time goes by I’m sure names will pop up on blogs and education sites, I have my list, locked in a draw. Every candidate has pluses and minuses, advocates and detractors; the Board has a challenging task.

Each summer City and State hosts an Education Summit, education leaders and panels discussing  current education issues: the NYC chancellor Carranza is the keynote speaker – it is worthwhile attending, an excellent way to begin the school year. Check out the site:  https://www.cityandstateny.com/events/2019-education-summit

One response to “NYS Education Commissioner Resigns (to move to another “Educational Opportunity”): Should the Next Commissioner Be an Innovator, a Reformer, an Administrator?

  1. there is nothing wrong with a Commissioner who recognizes the positives of tradition, while at the same time using innovation as an add on to that tradition. Teaching and learning skills are in a constant state of flux, in part owing to technology, and in part owing to the needs of newly arrived immigrants. Using tradition as a start up point would grease the way for innovation.


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