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Behind the scenes of MaryEllen Elia's resignation

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, arrives

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, arrives to announce her resignation effective on August 31, 2019 during a news conference at the New York State Education Department Building on Monday in Albany. Photo Credit: Hans Pennink/Hans Pennink

The only shock about the resignation Monday of state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is that it came so soon. 

Tension between Elia and the Regents that had been building for more than a year hit a new peak at the board’s June monthly meetings. Elia and many of the Regents were at loggerheads over her plan to aggressively regulate all private and parochial schools, putting local school districts in charge of the oversight. Her blueprint spurred a lawsuit from those schools and led the Regents to decide they needed to take a firm hand in rewriting the regulations. Regents also riddled her with questions over the search and selection process for the senior deputy commissioner she put forward. Anita Murphy, who won confirmation by only one vote after seven Regents abstained, then refused the job.

And many Regents were furious that schools had been placed on state watch lists largely because of high opt-out rates, despite Elia saying those schools would not face repercussions.

Elia was the pick of a very different chancellor, stalwart education reformer Merryl Tisch, and got the job in 2015 when Regents were trying to calm red-hot controversies over the Common Core curriculum, testing opt-outs and teacher evaluations.

Elia was often aligned with her predecessor, John King, who left the post for a spot with the federal Department of Education on a wave of parent and educator fury.

But Tisch left a few months after tapping Elia and was soon replaced by Betty Rosa, a longtime New York City educator supported by the New York State United Teachers who was firmly at odds with Tisch on every hot-button issue. And each set of Regents appointments since, which come from the NYSUT-influenced State Assembly, have moved the board closer to the union’s highly critical point of view on state standardized tests, teacher evaluations tied to student growth on such tests and firm, traditional high school diploma requirements and other issues pushed by reformers. 

So what next? NYSUT, which is nearly undefeated in political battles over the past five years, is expected to have a big say in the selection of Elia’s replacement, which is likely to take about nine months. 

Education leaders who support the kinds of reforms NYSUT has battled clearly need not apply.

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