MaryEllen Elia was appointed as New York’s education chief last year partly due to her reputation as a great listener.
Recently, she got an earful.
After she reduced the number of questions on state tests and made them untimed, leaders of a statewide testing-boycott movement let her know they weren’t not satisfied. Then, when she agreed to speak at a charter school rally, the state teachers union pounced on her.
And even as she tries to find her place in Albany’s notoriously arcane political landscape, the power dynamics are shifting around.
“There’s inevitably going to be a political piece of education,” Elia told reporters before discussing her vision for the coming year at Teachers College.
Since her appointment last May, Elia has promised to work closely with the state’s many opposing educational groups, while still pushing ahead with key state education policies, including the Common Core standards and annual tests. But recent events have shown how challenging it can be to walk the razor-thin line between policy compromise and commitment.
Elia’s recent attempts to ease testing-related pressure on students did little to appease a faction of parents determined to boycott state tests.
Last year, one in five student across the state refused to take the federally mandated test, and leaders of that opt-out movement vow to continue the boycott this year.
Even as she has tried to respond to widespread anxiety about testing, she also said Thursday that it would be “shortsighted” to overhaul state policy solely on account of the boycott. At the same time, she faces a legal mandate that makes the movement difficult to ignore.
In December, the federal education department sent a letter to Elia reminding her the state could lose federal funding if 95 percent of students fail to take the test. The mandate makes opt-out something to be “concerned about,” she said.
This week, Elia appeared briefly at the annual Charter Advocacy Day — an Albany rally drawing thousands of supporters for increased charter-school funding, which her predecessors had avoided.
Though she took pains to say she was “not interested in politics or pushing political agendas,” the state teachers union quickly jumped on the news, saying her attendance signaled “misplaced priorities.”
“On an issue like education, it’s hard to have a sane, sober conversation,” said Bob Bellafiore, who consults for various education groups including a co-sponsor of the rally, Northeast Charter School Network.
As Elia tries to focus on policy over politics, she finds herself in the midst of upheaval in Albany.
The state’s education policy-making body, the Board of Regents, will soon see a new chancellor and two new members. Meanwhile, the state senate and assembly have new leaders, following a pair of corruption scandals.
At the same time, Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently reversed his stance on teacher evaluations and kicked back responsibility for rebooting learning standards to the state education department. Underscoring her complicated relationship with the governor, Elia said Thursday that after seven months on the job, she has spoken with Cuomo on the phone but has yet to meet with him in person.
Despite the shifting political winds, Elia is determined to stay focused on policy, a spokesman said.
“There are always going to be political forces at play, especially in a state as large and complex as New York,” said Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the state education department. “But the Commissioner will continue to focus her attention and efforts on the one thing that matters most – ensuring that all children get the education they deserve.”
But Bob Lowry, the deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said it won’t be easy to tune out the political noise.
“I do think we are in — pun intended — testier times,” he said.