G. Thomas Houlihan, a North Carolina educator who served as the senior education policy adviser to that state’s former governor, James B. Hunt Jr., will take the helm of the Council of Chief State School Officers this summer. Some educators say the appointment, announced last week, could usher in a more centrist era for the Washington-based association.
Mr. Houlihan, 50, will become the new executive director, replacing Gordon M. Ambach, who is retiring after 13 years. Mr. Houlihan will lead the lobbying and support group for state superintendents and commissioners of education in its efforts to shape federal and state education policy.
Although he served under a prominent Democratic governor, Mr. Houlihan said he hopes to find a political common ground on the issues the council faces.
Some Republican and conservative education leaders have criticized the group over the years for what they see as a tendency to favor Democratic positions. In 1995, three state school leaders broke off from the group to form the Education Leaders Council, which now includes the chief school officers of eight states along with local school district officials.
“My intent is to move away from divisiveness,” Mr. Houlihan said last week. “I grew up in a family of all Republicans, and I did work for James Hunt, which I am very proud of. I clearly believe it is not about being a Democrat or a Republican. There are enough similarities in the issues facing all chiefs.”
Mr. Houlihan, who plans to start his new job in July, has had experience on the front lines of education as a teacher and principal in North Carolina. He moved on to serve as the superintendent of the Johnston County and Granville County school systems in the Tar Heel State, as well as the associate superintendent for the Alexander County schools there.
From 1993 to 1997, Mr. Houlihan served as the chief lobbyist and spokesman on education issues for then-Gov. Hunt, as well as his liaison to state and national education groups. Mr. Hunt built a national reputation as a leading “education governor” before leaving office this year.
Since 1997, Mr. Houlihan has been the president and executive director of the North Carolina Partnership for Excellence, an organization that fosters partnerships between business leaders and educators to improve public schools.
CCSSO President Peter McWalters, Rhode Island’s commissioner of education, said Mr. Houlihan was a natural pick for the job. His background can help the organization meet its goal of focusing on developing state-level policy, in addition to influencing federal education policy, Mr. McWalters said.
Since Mr. Ambach, a former state education commissioner in New York, announced his impending retirement a year ago, the council has conducted a nationwide search for his successor. Mr. Houlihan was picked from a pool of 23 applicants, the group’s president said.
“The fit here is perfect,” Mr. McWalters said. “He is from the industry but not a chief. He has had extensive experience as an educator, but also has state experience in policy development. Then he’s gone on to work with business models and quality assurance.”
Mr. McWalters said one key priority that the group faces is promoting the academic- standards movement, which has come under increasing criticism. Mr. Houlihan can bring to that task his experience in helping to shape the standards and accountability systems in North Carolina, where he promoted the use of state standardized testing to measure academic results, the Rhode Island commissioner said.
Michael E. Ward, North Carolina’s superintendent of public instruction, said he has worked with Mr. Houlihan since the two started their careers as teachers in North Carolina. He said that as a district superintendent, Mr. Houlihan showed his desire to stay in touch with the classroom by keeping his promise to visit a school every day.
“Some leaders are visionaries, some are capable at implementation, and some are good at persuading others,” Mr. Ward said. “Tom is a master of all of those things we associate with strong leadership. He is a facilitator and a consensus builder.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as N.C. Educator To Head Council Of State Schools Chiefs