School & District Management

Meet the Latest Class of State Schools Chiefs

By Daarel Burnette II — March 20, 2019 10 min read
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Being a state schools chief is a high-profile, high-pressure job, subject to political uncertainties as well as policy challenges. That’s reflected in the turnover rate: The average tenure of a state chief today is below two years.

The most recent class of state superintendents—11 in all, not including those named on an interim basis—was ushered in after last-year’s midterm elections, most of them appointed by newly elected governors. All except for Florida’s once worked as a teacher in a school district, marking a break away from an era in which many governors hired business leaders and politicians to take charge of state departments of education. And this latest crop is ethnically diverse—Illinois and Wisconsin both hired their first women of color to take charge of their school systems.

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Arizona | Kathy Hoffman

• Salary: $85,000

• Experience: Special education teacher

• Elected

For the last four years, Arizona’s since-departed state schools chief, Republican Diane Douglas, was at odds with Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and his appointed state board of education over who’s in charge, who works for whom, and state standards.

Since being inaugurated, Hoffman has pushed to repair the department’s relationship with the political leaders. And she has pushed for more funding for schools, reminding the public that, though Ducey promised teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020, other staff members at schools, including custodians, paraprofessionals, secretaries, and special education teachers, also deserve a raise.

“I’m acutely aware of the diminished resources and the shortages,” the former special education teacher said about the shortage of special education teachers. “There’s also a retention problem because they’re burning out and leaving the field.”

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California | Tony Thurmond

• Salary: $165,126

• Experience: State assemblyman, school board member

• Elected

California’s state superintendent race, in which Thurmond was backed by the state’s teachers union, was the most expensive in the country. Thurmond defeated opponent Marshall Tuck, who was backed by the state’s charter sector, by fewer than 100,000 votes.

Thurmond takes office at a volatile time for education politics in California, as state leaders wrestle with the local role in policy, how to spend a rapidly growing pot of state funds, and how to hold district officials accountable for lagging academic results. This school year, teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland staged strikes to protest their pay, class size and oversight of charter schools. In response, newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed legislation for more charter transparency rules and he has promised the department will study charter schools’ impact on district funding.

Newsom, a Democrat, appointed as the chairwoman of the state’s board of education Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford scholar who has a similar stance as her predecessor and next door neighbor, Michael Kirst.

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Florida | Richard Corcoran

• Salary: $276,000

• Experience: Attorney, former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives

• Appointed by state board

The state’s board was strongly urged by recently elected Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, to appoint Corcoran, who served on his transition committee. Many in the state, including the state’s teachers’ union and many civil rights advocates, felt the state’s board of education should conduct a national search for a new commissioner. But board members said Corcoran “checked all the boxes.”

Corcoran faces some big challenges, including juggling both state and federal school accountability systems, and overseeing a slew of new state laws that deal with school choice and school spending.

While the state’s academic outcomes have ticked upward in recent years, many districts face teacher shortages, and advocates have long complained about offerings for English-language learners. In addition, the new governor says he wants to rid Florida of the last vestiges of the Common Core State Standards, an announcement that forced the state education department to delay adoption of new instructional materials and confused districts and vendors alike.

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Illinois | Carmen Ayala

• Salary: To be determined by state board of education at March meeting

• Experience: Teacher, assistant superintendent, superintendent

• Appointed by state board

Ayala is the first woman of color to take over the state’s education department and was endorsed by recently elected Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat. She previously served as superintendent of Berwyn North School District, and has been a teacher, director of bilingual services, assistant superintendent, and superintendent at various times in her career.

She takes over the state department at a pivotal time. The department recently streamlined its teacher licensing process, scrapped the PARCC exam for a shorter state exam, expanded its offering of ACT and SAT tests, and two years ago rolled out a new funding formula.

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Maine | Pender Makin

• Salary: Not available as of press time

• Experience: Assistant superintendent, recent state principal of the year

• Appointed by governor

Under former Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s two terms, Maine had five commissioners. That includes, for a brief period, LePage himself after he got frustrated with the state chief’s nomination process in 2016.

When Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, was elected last year, Makin, then assistant superintendent of Brunswick schools, wrote to Mills about what she’d like to see changed at the state’s department of education. Among her suggestions: more freedom for administrators to decide how to run their schools, less red tape, and more trust between state and local officials. A few weeks later, Mills nominated Makin to be the state chief.

The mostly rural state has lost thousands of students in recent years, resulting in major budget cuts for some districts. As state chief, Makin says she wants to push for more investment in pre-K and career tech programs.

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Minnesota | Mary Cathryn Ricker

• Salary: $150,002

• Experience: Teacher, AFT vice president

• Appointed by governor

Gov. Tim Walz’s pick of Ricker, the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, as state chief made national headlines and firmly situated a team of educators in charge of the state. The governor is a former teacher, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan is a former Minneapolis school board member, and the state teachers’ union heavily backed Walz’s campaign.

Ricker, who previously had served as the president of St. Paul’s teachers’ union, replaces the long-serving Brenda Casselius in overseeing a state school system that is among the nation’s highest-performing, but where a growing number of poor, rural, black, immigrant, and Latino students have not excelled academically. Many districts have also operated in the red, and the state faces a growing teacher shortage in rural areas.

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Missouri | Margie Vandeven

• Salary: $192,000

• Experience: High school English teacher, Missouri deputy superintendent of learning services

• Appointed by state board

Vandeven, who was fired by the state’s board of education last year, was rehired in a unanimous vote late last year by a board with several newly appointed members. She’d clashed with former Republican Gov. Eric Greitens, who’d appointed a majority of the previous board, over expansion of charter schools.

Among her challenges, the state education department recently rolled out a new testing system, its fourth in the last five years as the state’s legislature changed its standards.

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New Mexico | Karen Trujillo

• Salary: $128,000

• Experience: Math teacher, principal, college administrator

• Appointed by governor

New Mexico will undergo some of the biggest school accountability changes this year as the state makes the transition from former Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The state’s letter-grade accountability and teacher-evaluation systems, crafted under the previous administration, upset most of the state’s teachers and the Democratic party, which recently took back the capitol, has promised to replace both systems wholesale.

Trujillo is a long-time New Mexico educator who recently has been serving as associate dean for research at New Mexico State University’s College of Education. Grisham also picked Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, to serve as the governor’s own education advisor.

Rhode Island | Angélica Infante-Green

• Salary: Not yet determined

• Experience: English/language arts, district administrator, New York state deputy commissioner

• Appointed by governor, approved by state board

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, in mid-March recommended Angélica Infante-Green, a veteran New York educator, expert on English-language learner communities, and first-generation immigrant to serve as the state’s next commissioner of education. She must be approved by the state’s board of education.

Infante-Green, the daughter of Dominican immigrants, received her undergraduate degree in architecture but, after college, decided to switch careers after a Teach for America stint as a dual-language teacher in the South Bronx. She rose through the ranks in New York City schools, serving as a dual-language project director, the founder of a school for recent immigrant arrivals, and the associate commissioner for bilingual education and world languages. She currently serves as the deputy commissioner with the New York Education Department’s office of Instructional support.

She would take over as Rhode Island is in the middle of a wide-ranging debate over what it needs to do to improve its school system. Recent test results show that its students perform significantly worse than Massachusetts students do. “This is an important, exciting moment in Rhode Island education,” Infante-Green said in a statement. “The foundation is in place, and we we must have the courage and collective will to act boldly on behalf of all of our students.”

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Tennessee | Penny Schwinn

• Salary: $200,000

• Experience: Teacher, charter school founder, Texas Education Agency deputy

• Appointed by governor

Schwinn will be stepping into a difficult job. The Tennessee department of education has been under attack by teachers and district administrators for its administering of the state’s botched standardized test. The state had to scrap its entire letter-grade accountability system, which determines some students’ grades, teachers’ evaluations, and whether several schools should be shuttered or taken over by the state.

In addition, the state’s Achievement School District, tasked with taking over academically struggling schools and handing them over to charter providers, has failed to improve many of the schools it took over in several impoverished Memphis neighborhoods five years ago. Several charter operators have pulled out of the ambitious experiment. Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, has pledged to expand the state’s charter sector and to push for the expansion of vouchers, a proposal that has had a difficult time politically in recent years.

Prior to her service in Texas, Schwinn founded a charter school in Sacramento. She worked as a TFA teacher in Baltimore and Los Angeles at the beginning of her career and comes from a family of educators.

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Wisconsin | Carolyn Stanford Taylor

• Salary: Not available as of press time

• Experience: Teacher, principal, union leader, assistant state superintendent of the division of learning support

• Appointed by governor

Stanford Taylor is the state’s first black superintendent of public instruction and for the last 17 years has served as the state’s assistant state superintendent of the division of learning support. She was appointed by Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, who was himself the state chief prior to his upset victory in last year’s gubernatorial election.

As state chief, Stanford Taylor will be in charge of implementing a new accountability system that the legislature has denounced as ineffective, and working with Evers to figure out a way to pump millions more dollars into the state’s public school system, which has lost thousands of students in recent years. Evers has also discussed attempting to halt growth of the state’s voucher system and limiting the charter school expansion.

“He’s going to reach across the aisle,” Stanford Taylor told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about relations between the governor and the GOP-controlled legislature.

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2019 edition of Education Week as Meet the Latest Class of State Schools Chiefs

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