School & District Management

Big Challenges Await Ky. Education Chief As New CCSSO Leader

By Michele McNeil — September 19, 2006 4 min read
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A former social studies teacher who has led the education departments in Kentucky and Arkansas will take the helm of the Washington-based organization that represents state schools chiefs.

Gene Wilhoit, who has served as the commissioner of education in Kentucky since 2000, will start as the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers on Nov. 1. This is a crucial time for the nonprofit group, whose members play a central role in implementing the federal No Child Left Behind Act and are preparing for the reauthorization of the law.

“I look forward to this chance to help shape state and national education policy,” Mr. Wilhoit, 63, said in a statement. He was not available for an interview.

Even though Congress is expected to delay final action on the law by at least a year beyond its scheduled 2007 renewal, the CCSSO is already starting to decide what changes it will seek. An overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was first adopted in 1965, the 4½-year-old law aims to make states, districts, and schools more accountable for students’ academic progress. It carries a raft of mandates on matters such as student testing and teacher qualifications.

“Having someone who has the experiences he’s had, especially in a state where it’s been difficult and challenging to implement No Child Left Behind, will be useful,” said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Lexington, Ky.-based group of citizen leaders seeking improvements to the state’s schools.

Mr. Wilhoit will replace G. Thomas Houlihan, who left his post in August. The executive director’s job currently pays $208,000 a year, but Mr. Wilhoit’s salary is not yet final, according to the CCSSO.

In Kentucky, the state board of education will hire a search firm to help fill the commissioner’s job. In the meantime, Kevin Noland, the deputy commissioner of the education department’s bureau of operations and support services, will be the interim chief, according to a statement from the department.

Previous National Role

Mr. Wilhoit’s education career spans 39 years, beginning with seven years as a social studies teacher in Ohio and Indiana before he started working his way up in education administration. His first stint in a state education department came in 1976, when he directed the adult education program at the Indiana Department of Education.

The biggest chunk of Mr. Wilhoit’s career has been spent at the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Boards of Education. He was the deputy director of NASBE from 1983 to 1986, when he was promoted to lead the organization—a position he held for seven years.

In 1993, he started a four-year tenure as the chief state school officer in Arkansas, where he instituted state-sponsored summer school for children in kindergarten through 3rd grade, and facilitated the revision of Arkansas’ school finance formula following a lawsuit in state court.

He went to Kentucky in 1997 as deputy commissioner in that department’s office of learning support services, and became the commissioner in 2000. He led the rollout of Kentucky’s testing and accountability system and implemented the Kentucky Virtual High School.

As education chief, he has occasionally sparred with the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Kentucky Education Association, over issues such as his proposal to reward teachers with extra pay for boosting student performance.

“We haven’t always agreed, but we’ve always been able to sit down and talk. He is a visionary, and he’s very open,” said Frances Steenbergen, the president of the teachers’ association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Keeping Chiefs United

One of Mr. Wilhoit’s biggest challenges, especially as he leads his new organization through No Child Left Behind debates, will be keeping the state chiefs united, said Brenda L. Welburn, the executive director of NASBE, who worked under Mr. Wilhoit when he was in charge there.

The state chiefs are Republicans, Democrats, and Independents; some are elected, while others are appointed. And while some of the chiefs are strong advocates of the federal law, others are leading the charge to have it overhauled. Ms. Welburn said Mr. Wilhoit is going to have to work to ensure that the U.S. Department of Education treats all states the same way under the No Child Left Behind law.

She said that as Mr. Wilhoit navigates such tricky issues, he’ll use his thoughtful, unflappable leadership style. His approach to life, leadership and education issues, she added, has been shaped by his personal life; two of his three adult children have disabilities.

“He once told me that once you almost see one of your children die, everything else is put into perspective,” Ms. Welburn said. “And that experience really has directed him.”

Associate Editor David J. Hoff contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Big Challenges Await Ky. Education Chief As New CCSSO Leader

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