SHE GOT OFF TO A ROUGH START. The man she replaced had angered teachers and parents to such a degree that large numbers of parents refused to let their kids take the so-called high stakes tests in 3rd through 8th grades. And at first it looked like State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia might have underestimated the public’s mistrust of the Education Department.
Turns out she was both tougher and more politically astute than skeptics thought. Resistance to the lengthy tests of younger students to monitor their progress has not disappeared, but it has diminished. That happened in part because Ms. Elia oversaw a scaling back of the tests in response to what she heard from the teachers and parents—known in edu-speak as stakeholders. It was a welcome change.
She announced this week that she will resign at the end of next month after four years in what has to be the country’s most challenging job in the field of education. An interim commissioner from the ranks of the Education Department has already been named and the Board of Regents will now search for a replacement. It won’t be an easy position to fill.
It’s not just executive skills, although those are needed in order to run the state’s educational bureaucracy. Political savvy is essential. But most important, the next commissioner should have experience in a classroom as a teacher and as a school administrator in a public school, preferably with some of that experience in a public school district in New York state. Maybe somebody from outside the state could do the job, but it takes a while for outsiders to grasp just how kooky we are when it comes to governing education.
The Regents will pick their candidate. Then the Assembly and the state Senate must approve the nominee. Because it’s a combined vote of the two houses and there are more Democrats than Republicans, it will be someone the Democrats want. But the governor, also a Democrat, controls the budget, including all state aid to school districts, regardless of how much the Regents and the commissioner request. That’s already a big bundle of political bosses for the commissioner to please and it does not take into account the teachers’ unions, the school boards’ association and reform groups, to name only a few.
There’s a $37-billion budget to oversee and about 2,700 people. That would keep even a very organized person busy and there’s all that vision stuff and planning and getting all the parties to agree on the priorities so that you can accomplish something like raising the performance of students in low-income districts without lowering the performance of kids attending wealthier schools.
These are the qualities we should expect in any new education commissioner. Others are harder to pin down. The Ichabod Crane Central School District, for example, is embarking on a major capital improvement project. On the advice of the district’s consultants, the ICC Board of Education split off some minor projects expected to need limited scrutiny by the Education Department in Albany. The consultants warned ICC that the larger projects could languish in Albany for 40 weeks before receiving approval.
Then, last week, the consultants informed the ICC Board that the state Education Department now completes most of its reviews within a few weeks, which accelerates the pace of the project. Nobody credited MaryEllen Elia with that welcome reform of an administrative logjam. And it’s possible it was in the works before she arrived. But the Education Department has been known for taking its time… or it was until she arrived.
Making progress possible is what good managers do. This state will miss her.
Now it’s time to tell the Board of Regents what qualities you want to see in the next state education commissioner. You can’t guarantee that they’ll consider your criteria as they choose from among applicants. But if you don’t tell them what’s important to you, how are the Regents supposed to know?
Write to: Board of Regents
New York State Education Building
89 Washington Avenue
Board of Regents, Room 110 EB
Albany, New York 12234