Open School Chiefs Jobs Located in GOP-Controlled States

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 31, 2012 3 min read
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When new reports are released that rank the education capabilities and outcomes of the 50 states, like the Annie E. Casey Foundation “Kids Count” data or the Harvard study ranking states based on National Assessment of Education Progress improvement, you might wonder who the top education officials are in the various states that “did well” or “did poorly.” For three states, the answer isn’t clear yet.

Three states controlled by Republicans—Mississippi, North Dakota, and Texas—are looking for permanent superintendents. In the Magnolia State, Tom Burnham left his post June 30 (he served a previous go-round as schools chief in the 1990s), while I wrote about Robert Scott’s decision to step down from the Lone Star State job back in May. Meanwhile, you might recall that Wayne Sanstead (who my colleague Sean Cavanagh profiled back in February) will not seek another term as the North Dakota superintendent, and his replacement has not yet been announced.

When considering the types of people who might be appointed to fill the job of state superintendent, it’s worth examining the two different approaches demonstrated recently by Maryland and Nevada. (In Mississippi and Texas superintendents are appointed by the state school board and the governor, respectively. In North Dakota the position is filled by a partisan election, so let’s leave North Dakota aside for now.)

In the case of Maryland, which had the job of replacing longtime Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick, the state simply reached across the border and plucked Lillian Lowery, Delaware’s superintendent. Lowery has what could be called a traditional education resume, in that she also served as a district superintendent and assistant superintendent and has held various administrative posts in Delaware, in addition to being a classroom English teacher. No doubt Maryland was also attracted to Lowery’s technical experience with the Race to the Top grant program, which both Maryland and Delaware won.

Now consider Nevada, which hired James Guthrie earlier this year. If you look at Guthrie’s experience, it’s headlined by his work at the George W. Bush Institute in Texas, where he was a senior fellow and the director of education policy studies. He has held three different academic positions at Southern Methodist University, Vanderbilt University, and the University of California, Berkeley. He also has done a lot of consulting work for federal agencies, for a lengthy list at states (including Nevada and Maryland), and for international groups like the Ford Foundation and the World Bank. Finally, he served on the board of directors in the Berkeley Unified School District.

Maybe it’s too strong to say that their resumes are vastly different, but certainly Lowery and Guthrie come out of distinct backgrounds. Based on their own needs and preferences, states in the position of Mississippi and Texas will have to consider whether they prefer the “traditional” candidate who moves up from the classroom and through various administrative roles, or one who has a more academic background with sharp, clearly-expressed policy preferences.

A qualified candidate looking at the Mississippi opening, for example, could see a chance to really put his or her distinctive policy stamp on Mississippi. It’s notable, for example, that the state failed to pass a charter school expansion law this year, much to the consternation of Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican. The Center for Education Reform, which favors pro-charter policies, gave Mississippi an F grade on its charter school law, and gave it the lowest ranking among the 41 states that have charter laws. Bryant also made it clear July 27 that he wants another prominent shift in Mississippi education policy: Merit pay for teachers. So Bryant, although he doesn’t directly decide who will be the next superintendent, could give a lot of policy leeway to the next superintendent who is amenable to championing those and other goals.

Then there’s Texas. As this Texas Tribune story on July 14 highlights, state lawmakers are not afraid to slam the Texas Education Agency as extremely unimpressive. When one lawmaker describes an agency as “one guy and one phone” and another says that “absolutely nobody would notice” if the agency simply vanished, the job to follow Scott as education commissioner may not be overwhelmingly attractive. Still, it’s a prominent state with a lot of students, so Gov. Rick Perry (R) may not have to go begging too long or loudly for someone to fill the job.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.