In a surprising move, MaryEllen Elia, New York’s top education official, will step down

New York education commissioner MaryEllen Elia is resigning next month just months after two top deputies also left their posts for high-profile jobs in other states.

Elia is stepping down to join a national firm that specializes in helping districts with school turnaround plans, but she declined to name the group ahead of the firm’s own announcement. Elia had not informed the board of her decision before making it public Monday afternoon. She will serve through August.

Elia said she did not yet know who would serve as the interim commissioner or what the timeline would be for hiring her permanent replacement. Her resignation comes at what she described as a critical time for policymaking for the Board of Regents.  

“I really thank you for this opportunity and I thank you for the support and the work we have done,” Elia told the Regents, who appeared to be shocked at the news.

During the meeting, Chancellor Betty Rosa said the announcement “obviously caught us all off guard” but declined to comment further before walking into back-to-back board trainings, which are closed to the public and are a typical July agenda item for the Regents. Regent James E. Cottrell said the news came as a “total shock” and upset him. He said he thought the board had made positive strides under Elia’s four-year leadership. 

In a joint statement, the board members said they have made “much progress” with Elia to improve education and described Elia as “steadfast in her commitment to placing the interests of students first.”  

Elia oversaw the board during a time of rapid change. A longtime educator and former school superintendent in Hillsborough County, Florida, she was chosen as New York’s education chief in 2015. Since then, the state has grappled with responding to an overhaul in federal education law, school improvement, teacher evaluations, and graduation requirements. Elia has also advocated for the state and its students in meetings with national education leaders, including U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Public meetings with the Regents and Elia were typically civil, though some board members often raised concerns about whether education officials were pushing hard enough to promote equity in school districts. Some also felt out of the loop on certain matters, such as New York State failing to meet federal special education standards for a decade. 

Elia’s resignation comes in a vastly different and less controversial political environment than the one she encountered when she became commissioner in 2015. She entered the job as her predecessor embraced Common Core standards and the inclusion of student state test scores in teacher evaluations — reform-focused measures that earned federal support but wedged a divide with parents and educators.

Since then, Elia has worked with a board that put a moratorium on using student scores on teacher evaluations and guided the state during the decline of the opt-out movement against taking standardized exams. Elia and the board have also expanded the pathways students can take to fulfill the requirement for passing five Regents exams.

On Monday, Elia recalled early in her tenure walking into meetings with parents who “were so upset, they could hardly articulate what they were upset about.” Along the way, she tried to work closely with groups on the opposite sides of education issues to strike compromises — something she considered one of her biggest accomplishments as commissioner. 

“I think one of the things that most frustrated people in New York before I came was, they didn’t feel like people were listening, and I would suggest to you that one of the things that I’ve done is listen,” Elia told reporters.

Elia said the national firm approached her about the opportunity six to eight months ago, and she dismissed the idea that her departure is related to any pressure or disagreement with the Regents. The board, she said, could benefit from a new leader as it grapples with “major agenda items” over the next several months — pointing to the morning’s discussion on changing diploma requirements as an example. 

In New York City specifically, the state education department is putting pressure on the city to reform its special education system — after a recent scathing state report found systemic failures with how students with disabilities are identified and receive services. 

“I think this is a good time for someone to come in and be selected by the Regents to take that move forward,” Elia said when asked why now was a good time for her departure. 

Elia earned encouraging words about her tenure from the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents New York City principals,  the state Council of School Superintendents, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. The state teachers union, which had recently been criticizing the state over testing snafus, largely looked toward the future and “a new commissioner with a deep background in public school classrooms.” 

Some, however, wondered about the transition to new leadership. Bob Lowry, deputy director of the Council of School Superintendents, said there does not appear to be an obvious successor in part because two other deputy commissioners have left to run other state education departments in recent months. 

Angélica Infante-Green left to become schools chief in Rhode Island, and Jhone Ebert decamped to be the top education chief in Nevada. Elia didn’t directly answer whether their departures impacted her own decision to leave, but she said their moves were an indication of the experience and preparation their jobs in New York provided.

“It’s not evident that there’s an heir apparent in the department,” Lowry said. “We also don’t know what direction the Board of Regents will move in or what they might be looking for in a successor.”

Read Elia’s resignation letter below.

Alex Zimmerman and Christina Veiga contributed.