Teacher evaluations, yeshiva oversight and the Excelsior scholarship

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Assembly Higher Education Chairwoman Deborah Glick explain what’s happening with teacher evaluations, yeshiva oversight and the Excelsior scholarship.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, New York City Councilman Mark Treyger, Chalkbeat reporter Alex Zimmerman, State Department of Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, New York City Councilman Mark Treyger, Chalkbeat reporter Alex Zimmerman, State Department of Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. Ali Garber

Earlier this year the state Legislature took action on a number of key education issues but failed to follow through on a proposal to delink student test scores from teacher evaluations. Now, as students across the state return to the classroom, City & State reached out to two top state officials – state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, the chairwoman of the higher education committee – to get the latest updates on the top education policy issues, from yeshiva oversight to the rollout of the Excelsior Scholarship.

MaryEllen Elia

Commissioner, New York state Education Department

What are the state’s next steps regarding yeshivas?

I think as you’re all aware, New York state has laws about the requirements for an education in New York. One of the things you have to know is the New York state Education Department had guidance on the website. We have over 1,800 nonpublic schools, and it’s important for us to know in fact there is a review of those schools. We started working, after realizing that this was not necessarily being done, (and) called for the school districts themselves to have a responsibility to review their nonpublic schools. We are in the process now of updating the guidance. There have been some changes in the law. We have been reviewing those changes, making sure that is reflective of the work that we would expect will done across the state. We will be doing trainings across the state for both our public schools as well as the nonpublic schools.

How do you feel about the possibility of using federal money to arm teachers with guns in schools?

We want teachers to be working and thinking about their classrooms. Where their gun is, to make sure that that’s locked away, if a crisis occurs, will they get to it fast enough? Is that where we want the minds of our teachers to be thinking? Resources are key. We’re going to use resources we received from the federal government and we’re going to put it into guns? The level of insanity there really goes beyond what we’re talking about in a conversation about how to improve education.

What would you say to teachers anxious about evaluations?

The (Annual Professional Performance Review) system is way out of whack. It has taken teachers to a place where teachers aren’t always necessarily concentrating on the things that need to be done for every kid in their classroom. It’s got to be fixed, but I would suggest that teachers are the ones that need to be part of making that work, and they need to tell us what is the best way that they should be evaluated for a productive outcome. I don’t know what it’s going to look like in the end, but I know that teachers and professionals across the state should be the drivers. Politics and children don’t go together. And when decisions are made that relate to what’s happening in every classroom across New York state and it’s not made by the teachers and the educators, I think that creates a problem.

The problems with “free tuition”

Deborah Glick, chairwoman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, speaks at City & State's Education Summit.
Ali Garber
Deborah Glick
Chairwoman, Assembly Higher Education Committee

When the Excelsior Scholarship was announced, the headlines indicated that college would be free, but there’s more to it.

First of all, New York state has, and has had for a long time, a very generous Tuition Assistance Program, on a sliding scale of income up to $80,000. Had I my druthers, I would have taken the money for Excelsior and made some corrections to TAP. One of the issues is that it’s a last-dollar program, so students who are at the poorest end, who are already receiving TAP and Pell (Grants), are required to use all of their TAP and Pell – TAP has to go to tuition, but Pell does not. They’re required to use all of their additional Pell before they’re eligible for Excelsior. So for the poorer students, we tried in the Assembly to get a carve-out of at least 25 percent of a student’s Pell Grant so they would have additional resources for books or transportation, the kinds of things that stop students from being able to attend. We were not successful.

What the state Senate and Assembly did do? The original construct was 15 credits per session, hard and fast. And we said, well that’s crazy. Students are full time if they’re getting TAP, they’re full time at 12 credits. Schools see them as full time at 12 credits, and for an awful lot of students, certainly at CUNY at least half the students are working full time, 12 credits is as far as they could possibly go, and for (those) entering who are adjusting to college life. It got changed to 30 credits for the year, however, those credits that are not taken during the two semesters are kind of out (of) pocket for students. So they won’t lose their eligibility if they take six credits over the summer, but they’re going to have to pay for those. … It was an announcement, and then let’s hurry up and figure out how to get it done, and it was an inartful implementation.

Was creating Excelsior a cynical move?

TAP is first of all income-based, and it is a choice of the student where they go. So the money follows the student. The student chooses the college. If they get in, they’re eligible for TAP, they get the money, whether it’s private or public. So if you’re going to raise the income from the top TAP income is 80, if you’re going to raise it to 125, and you’re going to make students eligible for that on the basis that they are eligible for TAP, it’s a very big number. So it was a cynical decision. And it was, in my humble opinion, intended to reach middle and upper middle income people.