Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Monday announced her resignation as the state's top education official, leaving members of the Board of Regents “shocked” as they looked to each other in surprise.
While her announcement came at the end of the public portion of the board's regular monthly meeting, she said little aside from the fact that her resignation would be effective Aug. 31.
“It has been my great pleasure and honor to serve the students and teachers of New York over the last four years as we work to advance equity and excellence in our education system,” Elia wrote in her resignation letter.
While the letter outlined both the board's and Education Department's accomplishments under Elia's leadership, it didn't specify a reason for her departure. She later told reporters that she had accepted a job wtih a “national firm” involved in working with school districts around the country. The announcement came as a surprise to the Board of Regents, which Elia said first heard of her resignation at the meeting.
Chancellor Betty Rosa, who leads the Board of Regents, said the announcement “caught us off guard” as the resignation letter was distributed among the board members. Regent Beverly Ouderkirk, whose district includes the Capital Region and the North Country, had little to say after Elia's announcement.
“I really don't have my thoughts,” she said as she left the meeting. “(I'm) shocked.”
Elia has led the state Education Department since 2015, replacing John King Jr., playing a key role in the department's efforts to ease tensions at the time over state tests, teacher evaluation and learning standards that had sparked the statewide opt-out movement. The state has moved under Elia's leadership to limit testing days and the length of tests, staunching growth in test refusals and seeing a slight uptick in student participation on the controversial state tests given to students in third through eighth grades. She pointed to a deliberate approach to move away from the roiling political battles surrounding the tests and teacher evaluations as her proudest accomplishment in the job.
“There was enormous stress in the system, I would go into meetings with parents and they were so upset they could hardly articulate the things they were upset about... and teachers felt like they had been attacked in New York,” Elia said. “The thing I'm most proud of is working to calm the waters here and move the agenda for education forward. I think for a period of time we were in a stalemate, not really able to focus on what we need to do to support students.”
Even with the improving participation rates, the state tests have continued to be a source of angst for state officials as a transition to computer-based testing in districts around the state has faced technical glitches that have caused hourslong delays for students and problems submitting answers.
Elia also oversaw the development and early implementation of the state's new school accountability plan, part of a federal law passed during the Barack Obama administration. The Education Department has rolled out numerous updated learning standards, established broad guiding documents around social-emotional learning and culturally-responsive education. More recently, Elia has battled with the private school community over regulations calling for reviews to ensure the private schools are providing students an education “substantially equivalent” to public schools. She has championed a consolidation of the state's many pre-kindergarten programs and worked to address shortfalls in the state's teacher certification program.
Prior to her announcement at Monday's meeting, Elia and department staff outlined a major initiative to spend the next year “rethinking” the state's high school diploma requirements, an aggressive timeline that some regents questioned as too little time for such big changes. Now, the board will also be looking for a new leader for the department.
Leaders of various education groups in statements Monday afternoon acknowledged that Elia took over the department during a contentious time in education policy and lauded her work leading the department and listening to stakeholders.
“Her willingness to engage with the field in charting course adjustments was what we needed at the time,” Bob Lowry of the state Council of School Superintendents said in a statement.
Tim Kremer, executive director of the state School Boards Association, also cited the “tumultuous time” in which she came to helm the Education Department and said she “helped heal wounds” caused by “the hurried implementation” of a new teacher evaluation system and the Common Core learning standards.
“Elia will leave behind a legacy of accomplishment,” Kremer said in the statement.
New York State United Teachers, a statewide teachers union, was already looking forward to the state's next education commissioner. The group, which has sparred with Elia over teacher evaluations, called for for a new commissioner who has “a deep background in public schools classrooms.”
“We look forward to engaging with the Board of Regents as the search for the next commissioner begins and ensuring that the voices of hundreds of thousands of educators across New York state are heard throughout the process,” the union said in its statement. “We look forward to working closely with the next commissioner to fix the broken state testing system... and on our missions to cultivate the next generation of highly qualified, dedicated educators.”
Rosa, the education chancellor who wouldn't comment directly following Elia's announcement, released a statement Monday afternoon thanking Elia for “her tireless and unwavering services to New York State's children.”
There was no word Monday afternoon on what the next steps to fill the vacancy Elia will leave at the end of next month.
Elia had previously served as superintendent for 10 years of Hillsborough County Public Schools in and around Tampa, Florida, and worked for nearly two decades as a teacher in western New York. She said she looked forward to being able to work with districts around the country in her new position.
“Going forward, I hope to translate the experiences I've gained from one of the largest, most complex education systems in the country into lessons to help improve classrooms, schools, and districts for students in every state,” Elia wrote in the conclusion of her resignation letter.