School & District Management

State Chiefs’ Vacancies Crack Window on Policy

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 18, 2012 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misidentified members of Chiefs for Change. The group includes Hanna Skandera in New Mexico and Tony Bennett in Indiana.

Several job openings for state schools chiefs could provide momentum for advocates seeking to push new policies or build on current ones in areas ranging from expanded charter school options to early-literacy requirements.

In Florida, Mississippi, Ohio, and Utah, in particular, governors and state education boards will be vetting candidates with an eye toward advancing politically sensitive policy initiatives both underway and on the horizon.

And for some observers, Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s appointment last month of tea party activist and former federal education official Michael Williams to lead the Texas Education Agency is seen as a harbinger for states looking for new types of leaders for state departments.

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which supports vouchers and changes to traditional collective bargaining practices, among other policy initiatives, said she was thrilled by Mr. Williams’ selection, given his long record as a proponent of school choice.

State Leadership Openings

The top K-12 official’s position is open or soon to be open in several states, with politically sensitive policy issues in play.

FLORIDA
The Sunshine State, which has inspired many recent education measures around the country, is looking for a replacement for former Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson, who resigned after just one year on the job. The state board of education, whose members are appointed by the governor, will select the next commissioner.

OHIO
The last permanent superintendent, Stan Heffner, stepped down over the summer after a report raised ethical questions about his conduct in office. The state board of education, which is composed of both appointed and elected members, will select the next superintendent.

MISSISSIPPI
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, gave a speech in the state capital in August saying the state was ready for “bold education reform” in terms of accountability and transparency. The state board of education, which is composed of members appointed by the governor, the lieutenant governor, and the House speaker, will appoint the next superintendent.

UTAH
Outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction Larry Shumway has earned praise for his work on digital learning and pay-for-performance for teachers, but his departure means that the Common Core State Standards are losing a prominent defender in the state. The state board of education, which is elected, will appoint the next superintendent.

SOURCE: National Association of State Boards of Education

“The reality is that they can be ... a strong leader on their own, and can indeed break china,” Ms. Allen said of new superintendents.

From one point of view, states with vacancies and elected officials eager to begin signature policy initiatives could look for role models in Chiefs for Change, a group of state chiefs whose shared agenda includes support for such policies as school choice expansion and linking teacher ratings to student performance. Members include Hanna Skandera in New Mexico and Tony Bennett in Indiana; both states have Republican governors.

But Cynthia Brown, the vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank, noted that several state chiefs who work with Democratic governors “are really committed to similar kinds of reform [but] have chosen not to join Chiefs for Change.” She cited state chiefs John King, in New York, and Stefan Pryor, in Connecticut.

Mississippi Eyes Florida

In the view of some education advocates, Mississippi has reached a tipping point on school policy, and only needs a new education chief for the final push to the brand of change championed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Tom Burnham retired from his second stint as state superintendent at the end of June.

In an August speech in the state, Mr. Bush, the chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which promotes policies including digital learning and expanded school choice, said he was anticipating “bold education reform” there: “Like Florida 15 years ago, Mississippi is ripe for student-centered reforms that foster high expectations, accountability, and transparency in public education.”

Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the Tallahassee, Fla.-based foundation, which is affiliated with Chiefs for Change, said Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, has expressed willingness to spend “political capital” on the kind of measures Mr. Bush mentioned, and many legislators have indicated they will help, she said.

“As long as they pick a reform-minded education chief, and all signs point to that’s what they want to do, they will have all the ingredients to pass all the right laws,” Ms. Levesque said. (The state’s governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker select members of the state school board, which will select the next superintendent.)

A recent investigation by a newspaper in Maine, meanwhile, has raised questions about the role of Mr. Bush’s foundation in helping that state’s education chief push for an expansion of online education. (“Virtual Ed. Providers Work to Influence State Policy in Maine,” Sept. 19, 2012)

In Mississippi, one move that could lay the basis for bigger changes is the state’s new system, approved by legislators this year, of grading schools on an A-F scale, said Forest Thigpen, the president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, which hosted the event in Jackson, the state capital, where Mr. Bush spoke. That system could give parents a more realistic, and less positive, picture of their schools, he said.

“Certainly, if parents understand how well their schools are really doing, then they will have incentives to press for more options,” Mr. Thigpen said.

Utah Shift on Standards?

In Utah, the departure of Larry Shumway by year’s end as the superintendent of public instruction means that the state will lose a prominent defender of the Common Core State Standards. Critics in the state have argued that the standards represent the nationalization of states’ education systems, and will curtail the rights of states to control K-12 schools.

Mr. Shumway was generally a sturdy defender of the standards, which emerged from an initiative led by the Council of Chief State Schools Officers and the National Governors Association. In a January 2011 statement, he stressed that the standards were limited to English/language arts and mathematics and were developed by states, not Washington. Just this August, Mr. Shumway told the Salt Lake Tribune that he was “no longer interested in arguments over who wrote” the standards.

State Sen. Howard Stephenson, a Republican and a member of the Utah Senate’s education committee, said Mr. Shumway had been an “honest broker” with state lawmakers about various policies, including the common core.

“I have tried to convince my colleagues that there are not black helicopters waiting over the hill with blue-helmeted U.N. thugs waiting to take our children from us,” said Mr. Stephenson.

He said he wanted a national search for a replacement for Mr. Shumway, and not someone from the state education department. (The state school board, which is elected by popular vote, will name Mr. Shumway’s replacement.)

Ms. Levesque of the Foundation for Excellence in Education said she was concerned about several states like Utah becoming “wobbly” on content standards with the approach of the common-core assessments, which are generally expected to be harder than states’ own tests. But Gayle Ruzicka, the president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said it would take a “miracle” for the elected state board, given its politics, to appoint a superintendent opposed to the common core.

“Maybe [the new chief] won’t be as enthusiastic about it as Larry has been,” Ms. Ruzicka said. “That itself would be [helpful].”

Regaining Momentum

In Ohio and Florida, the push for new superintendents comes after the abrupt departure of state chiefs early in their tenures.

Stan Heffner’s resignation in Ohio came after a state government report raised ethical questions about his practices while in office. He had been in the job for roughly a year. During his time in office, Ohio legislators made several significant policy changes backed by Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, including the adoption of a new A-F school grading system and new early-literacy requirements.

In Florida, former Commissioner of Education Gerard Robinson departed after just one year as controversies about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and its school accountability system emerged, although the changes to the FCAT were agreed to before he took office. (The governor appoints state school board members, who in turn will select the next education commissioner.)

Incoming Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican who is a former district superintendent, said the next Florida commissioner should be someone who can correct the way the state education department “drifted” under Mr. Robinson, particularly when it came to working with parents, teachers, and principals about issues associated with teacher evaluations. The new chief, he said, must also be able to effectively carry out sweeping and tricky new policies linking teacher pay and evaluations to student performance, as well as implement the common core.

“What Florida needs now is not one more person with big ideas,” Mr. Gaetz said. “We already have the biggest of big-idea guys. We have Jeb Bush. Nobody has bigger or better ideas for school reform than Jeb Bush. We need someone who is a crank-turner.”

Such talk makes state Rep. Marty Kiar, a Democrat, nervous. He said the next education commissioner, with the backing of elected officials, could end up pushing for controversial policies ranging from a parent-trigger bill, which was narrowly voted down by lawmakers this year, to the transfer of construction money to charter schools.

"[State GOP elected officials] have worked incredibly hard to move away from the traditional public school model,” Mr. Kiar said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2012 edition of Education Week as Chiefs’ Vacancies Offer Prospect of Policy Shifts

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