There is much to like about the Board of Regents’ selection as the state’s new commissioner of education. There are some question marks, as well, but to some extent, those are bound to come with any experienced candidate.
MaryEllen Elia comes to the job with a deep background in education and a familiarity not only with upstate New York, but with Western New York. All of it may be useful as she succeeds John B. King Jr. as commissioner of education in a state roiled by controversy.
Elia is a native of Rochester, but moved to Lewiston at age 4. She attended Rosary Hill (now Daemen) College, the University at Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo State before beginning her teaching career in the Sweet Home Central School District as a social studies teacher. She stayed there 16 years. She married into the Elias, a prominent family in Niagara Falls.
She will start her new job July 1, returning to New York from the Hillsborough County school system in Florida, where she was superintendent for more than a decade. The district, which includes Tampa, is racially and socioeconomically diverse, as is New York State.
Indeed, it is that length of service that takes some of the sting out of the fact that her availability comes because the Hillsborough School Board fired her in January. That she survived 10 years in that position, and that the vote to dismiss her was 4-3, suggests that she was effective and that, as some observers say, her firing had more to do with School Board politics than with her performance.
And there is also this: At the time of her firing, she had been named as a finalist for National Superintendent of the Year. Coming to her defense were U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Washington Post education columnist Jay Matthews, who wrote a piece about her “senseless and catastrophic” termination in a column headlined “Blunder of the year?”
If so, Hillsborough’s loss is New York’s gain. Consider some of her accomplishments in Florida:
• The district’s graduation rate rose to 74 percent from 64 percent.
• She improved the participation and performance of minority students in advanced courses.
• She expanded career pathways programs, including several in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
• Working with the teachers union, she created a merit pay system to reward teachers for strong performance.
She had her critics. Late in her tenure, School Board members and some segments of the community said she cultivated fear in the workplace and paid too little attention to issues that affect minority children, including the disproportionate number of black students receiving suspensions.
To be sure, she has elbows. During the last School Board election, she placed a campaign sign on her front lawn promoting the opponent of one of her main critics.
Overall, though, Elia’s tenure suggests focus, devotion and success. It’s no wonder that she was considered to lead the state education system in Florida.
Yet, there is reason for concern. It’s a big jump from superintendent of a school district, even a large one like Hillsborough, to the commissioner of any statewide system, especially one in as Byzantine and contentious a state as New York. Florida is a right-to-work state, which gives unions less clout. In New York, the teachers unions have more power than is healthy for the education of students. That will be a key difference in her ability to improve education in the state and in districts such as Buffalo.
But she is a reformer, and one who pays attention. She supports the Common Core standards, but following complaints that teachers weren’t adequately trained and that new tests put too much pressure on students, she reached out to the public and acknowledged that many criticisms were valid. She appears to have learned from that experience as she prepares for her post in New York.
“I think the important thing is that we have to understand it, and we have to be able to explain it to parents so that they understand why we expect children to be able to meet the demands of the current economy and current workforce,” she said.
In that, she sounds like the right person at the right time. For now, though, New Yorkers at least have reason to hope.