Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Thursday, August 27, 2015

NYSED Commissioner MaryEllen Elia Puts Together A "Goon Squad" To Intimidate Parents, Teachers

Readers of Perdido Street School blog will not be surprised to find out that NYSED Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is fast wearing out her welcome as the new head of the New York State Education Department nor that she is proving to be a tone deaf figure with a talent for divisiveness and controversy.

Elia was fired from her previous gig as superintendent of Hillsborough School District because she openly feuded with members of the school board, treated many of those who worked with her or under her with disdain and scorn, and refused to take responsibility for student safety problems or  district complicity in the deaths of three students.

In sum:

She had a reputation for creating a "culture of fear" in her office where subordinates felt "browbeaten" and "bullied."

Was accused of trying to cover up district complicity in the death of a 7 year old special needs child.

Was the target of parent protest for lack of district response after a second special needs child died at a Hillsborough school.

Oversaw a school district that has been accused of racial discrimination in its discipline policies and is the target of a federal complaint.

Oversaw a school busing and choice program that created a "reign of chaos" at McLane Middle School for ten years.

Was dubbed "MaryEllen EVILia" by some parents for pursuing district policies that harmed children with special needs.

Couldn't play nice with the school board and was ultimately whacked in a 4-3 vote in January.

When Elia was hired to replace John King at NYSED, she was hailed by members of the Board of Regents, many in the Legislature, the education reform community and NYSUT as a great hire, someone who would listen to and work well with others.

Given her track record at Hillsborough, it was absurd to think that she wouldn't be as divisive, controversial and tone deaf here in New York as she was in Tampa.

It hasn't taken too long for Elia to demonstrate exactly that.

Last week she said parents who choose to opt their children out of the state standardized tests are "not reasonable" and called teachers who support or encourage opt out "unethical."

She threatened "ramifications" for schools and/or districts with high opt rates in 2015, then after that "tool" was taken from her when Regents Chancellor Tisch and Governor Cuomo both stated there wouldn't be punitive measures taken against parents or schools for opt outs this year, promised that she would engage parents and teachers for next year to make sure that opt out rates drop in a way that sounded awfully threatening.

Elia has said "it's the law" that students take standardized tests and she's going to make sure that educators are aware of where the line in the law is drawn over what they can and can't say about opt out.

Her engagement plan has some thinking that she plans legal action against teachers who encourage or even support opt out, like this commenter at Perdido Street School blog:

Cuomo's, Tisch's, and now Elia's recent statements are suggesting how they will be approaching Opt Out.....3020A'ing any "educator," Admin or teacher, who in any way support or do not OPPOSE opt out. Cuomo and Tisch were putting the happy face on it to penalties! And Elia was very clear in saying that any educators who support opt out are "unethical." That suggests the "moral character" language of a 3020A.

Their path forward cannot be penalizing parents, kids, or funding of schools...that's a political shit storm and they know it. The only thing left on the table are those that they are trying to destroy that's where the hammer will fall for opt out.

Today some members of the Assembly have joined in the public warnings over Elia's parent and teacher engagement plans:

Elia told Politco New York that she’s putting together a “tool kit” to help school superintendents reverse the boycotts in their schools, and has been talking to the education department’s legal staff, in order to provide the school administrators with more information on laws requiring that the exams be administered.  Those remarks set off some lawmakers.

Assemblyman Jim Tedisco spent a decade as a special education teacher in the Schenectady school system.

“I call this the goon squad,” said Tedisco. “ They are going to intimidate the parents.”

Assemblyman Bill Nojay, a Republican from the Rochester area who describes himself as libertarian leaning, was never a teacher, but his mother was one. He says education officials should be listening to the parents instead.

“The parents, the teachers and the students have got more than enough information,” Nojay said. “They don’t need somebody who is new to New York State to say ‘listen to me, I know better than you do’.” 

In addition, Al Graf has started a petition to call on the Legislature to pull back support from both the Common Core and NYSED Commissioner Elia.

Graf, Tedisco and Nojay are part of a Republican minority in the Assembly, so they will have little opportunity to influence policy in the Legislature, but their public statements warning over Elia's so-called engagement plans with parents and teachers will put pressure on Assembly Dems in the majority carrying water for NYSED and the Cuomo education agenda as well as Cuomo himself.

As Elia goes to war with parents and teachers over opt out (and make no mistake, that's what she's doing by threatening legal action), Assembly Dems and Cuomo are going to have to decide whether they want to back her in that war and risk enmity from the growing number of public school parents who are opposed to the state's education reform agenda and Endless Testing regime.

Same goes for the Board of Regents.

We know that both Regents Chancellor Tisch and Governor Cuomo support that reform agenda and Endless Testing regime but neither wants to be the face of it - that's why Tisch made some soothing statements about opt out and special needs children and Cuomo backed parent right to opt children out of state tests.

Nonetheless as Elia gets more and more shrill over opt out and threatens punitive measures (or even levies them) - as she puts together her "goon squad" to fight her war against opt out - the Board of Regents, the Legislature and Governor Cuomo are eventually going to have to take sides.

You would have to think given Cuomo's careful statements over opt out, given Tisch's softening tone on whether children with special needs should take the standardized exams, given Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie's recent statements that maybe there's more to education than just testing, that Elia may not get the public support she's going to need in her war against opt out.

Elia can only use her goon squad if she's got the political support for it.

Her political support is already waning - you can see that in the statements from Graf, Tedisco and Nojay as well as the anger she is engendering among some parents for her opt out threats.

When a member of the Legislature says the NYSED Commissioner is preparing a "goon squad" to intimidate parents and teachers over state tests, the writing is already on the wall:

MaryEllen Elia is wearing out her welcome in a New York minute and whatever political support and leverage she thinks she has to threaten parents and teachers is tenuous and thin.

To top it all off, Elia's going to war over opt out at the same time she is fighting a second front back in Tampa - she has had to defend herself from allegations by some members of the Hillsborough School Board and her successor as Hillsborough superintendent that she left a financial mess in the district.

For some reason, the New York press and political establishment haven't taken an interest in the mess Elia made in Tampa nor in the harm she has done to students there, but as the political fallout from her Hillsborough days continues to follow her, it won't be long before they do.

And once that happens, Elia will have the notoriety she truly deserves as just another incompetent, tone deaf educrat who refuses to take responsibility for the messes she makes even as she threatens accountability and responsibility for others.


  1. Why is opting out of high stakes testing unethical?
    Why is advocating for opting out of high stakes testing unethical?

  2. The irony of all this is that Cuomo hired Elia to create that goon squad and now he does not have the balls to back it. She is in a tough spot but I do not feel sorry for her at all. Can't wait for her to pack her bags and get outta town!

  3. When NYSED does something that genuinely helps kids and parents it will not need to be mandated--or forced onto people. The problem here is NYSED was bought and paid for by Tisch (policy set by her and her "fellows") and the corporate interests seeking only one thing--privatization$$$$!

  4. Looks like she'll end up in the same heap as Cathie Black pretty soon,eh?

  5. The battle against children and parents is a losing one, so now she will double down against teachers to force them to advocate for high stakes testing, and threaten them with disciplinary action.

    Elia, the great communicator...loading her political guns...with paper bullets.

    If she goes to implement her threats, watch the lawsuits rise as she hurriedly packs her bags and runs.

    Then Cuomo and Tisch and Weingarten will "introduce" the next diseased commissioner on the people of New York.

    But the ice they walk in continues to get thinner by the day.