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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Change is in the wind on teacher evals

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is shown during an interview at Newsday in Melville on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

As MaryEllen Elia, the state's new education commissioner, made clear during a meeting with Newsday reporters and editors last week, she has no authority to change state law.

"As commissioner, there are some things I don't control," she told the group gathered around a Newsday meeting-room conference table. "I don't control the writing of laws in New York State."


But Elia does have the ability -- and an opportunity -- to push for change in those laws, specifically a provision that raises the share of teachers' and principals' annual job evaluations based on student test scores to a maximum of 50 percent.

The provision was put into place by state lawmakers on April Fools' Day after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo slapped the label of "baloney" on the previous year's evaluations because so few teachers had received ratings of "ineffective."

That change dropped fuel into the region's already fast-burning opt-out-of-standardized-state-testing fires. "In New York State, we have to calm the waters," Elia acknowledged last week. "There has to be an understanding that all this cannot change overnight."

Yes. But it nonetheless has to change. And the state's Board of Regents, under a rules-and-regulations provision approved in June, just may have provided Elia some of the room she needs.

Under the change, school districts can ask state permission to delay implementation of the up-to-50-percent amendment this year because of "hardship" -- which could include ongoing negotiations with unions over how the district handles evaluations.

A hardship delay could last until March, which would make it logistically impossible for districts then to tie April testing to teacher evaluations.

It would, in short, amount to a moratorium that would not place districts' state funding into jeopardy.

Make no mistake, such a delay on its own likely would have little impact on reducing opt outs -- which has grown into a movement of its own.

Still, the delay would give Elia, who has been on the job just a few weeks, time to find fixes.

But likely not too much time.

State lawmaker Carl Marcellino (R-Oyster Bay), who heads the Senate's Education Committee, last week sat in a session with Elia and a few local school superintendents. "I think the commissioner learned a few things from the superintendents," he said. "She was straightforward, and they weren't pulling any punches."

"The commissioner is from Florida and New York is not Florida and . . . she knows that, and she deserves a chance," he said.

As for tinkering with legislation, Marcellino -- while acknowledging likely opposition from Cuomo -- said, "There may be room to tread around in it somewhere down the line."

Roger Tilles, Long Island's representative to the Board of Regents, said Wednesday that he believed Elia should come up with a proposal to revamp the state's teacher evaluation system and submit that plan to the Regents so that they, in turn, could take it to Marcellino and other state lawmakers.

"The opt-out movement doesn't give Elia much time because if there is no change in the system by March, my feeling is that there will be more opt outs and the opt-out movement will go out after the state legislators who voted for this," Tilles said in an interview.

"We have to give the state a recipe for what they can do in January and see what the governor does," he said.

Bottom line: The longer Elia and state officials wait to address growing anger over testing and its link to teacher evaluations, the larger the risk of anarchy.

Either way, it's likely change is coming.

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