WHEN THE STATE education board convenes next Monday to vote on a new Massachusetts education commissioner, its members won’t just be sizing up the three finalists for the job. They will be making a statement about the direction of state education policy going forward.
The decision will come at a time when Washington is stepping back from the heavily prescriptive federal schooling policies of the past decade and as the education world deals with a national backlash against charter schools and high-stakes tests, blowback that registered loudly in Massachusetts with the lopsided defeat of a 2016 ballot question to expand charters.
We are at “a moment of pause,” said Paul Reville, who served as education secretary under governor Deval Patrick. “There’s been a lot of pushback on existing reform strategies and a lot of conflict on what the next direction should be.”
Reville said it has also not been entirely clear what the Baker administration’s broader vision is for education – beyond the strong support shown for charter schools by the governor, Education Secretary Jim Peyser, and state education board chairman Paul Sagan. “I think they’ve struggled some with that because they had all their eggs in the charter school basket and that didn’t work out as they’d hoped,” Reville said.
Sagan said the overriding issue facing the state’s schools – and the biggest challenge for the next commissioner – will be addressing the persistent and large gap in achievement between white students and those from wealthier backgrounds and black and Latino students and those from low-income households.
“Many people have been very serious about wanting to close the achievement gap – and it hasn’t happened,” said Sagan. “We have three people who are very committed to equity and closing the achievement gaps that persist despite a lot of great effort here,” he said of the finalists for the state commissioner job.
But how each candidate envisions tackling those gaps will be telling. The three finalists will be interviewed publicly by the state education board this Friday at the Omni Parker House in Boston.
The field includes one in-state candidate, Jeff Riley, who serves as the state-appointed receiver of the Lawrence school system, and two deputy education commissioners from other states, Penny Schwinn from Texas and Angelica Infante-Green from New York.
As the lone in-state candidate, Riley is seen by some as the front-runner. His work on the Lawrence turnaround effort has been praised by Baker. Riley is also a familiar face at meetings of the state board, where he has appeared regularly to provide updates on progress in the Lawrence schools.
Riley has overseen gains in the Lawrence schools by pressing for big change without exercising an overly harsh hand. He has attempted to be “disruptive in the least disruptive way possible,” said Andy Smarick, an education policy fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Riley says he’s tried to push authority – and accountability – down to the school level and empower teachers to work with principals in deciding on the best curriculum and class scheduling for their schools. He’s been committed to raising achievement scores and graduation rates in the district, which had been among the lowest in the state, but has also emphasized that quality education has to include more than just a focus on core academic outcomes.
In a November interview for a CommonWealth article on the state of the Massachusetts education reforms, he said he’s made it a priority to build up the arts and other enrichment opportunities “that my kids in the city don’t always have access to but wealthier communities or their parents are able to provide for their kids.”
“I don’t believe in disavowing testing, but how do we measure the value of a kid getting up in front of a thousand people and being in a play and reciting lines?” asked Riley. “There is a value in that. It may not show up on a test, but it shows up in life.”
Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy commissioner overseeing instruction in the New York state education department, is seen as a champion of education issues facing student groups that have often been marginalized in school systems.
“She is passionate about expanding opportunity for low-income students and students of color,” said John King, the former US education secretary, who recruited Infante-Green to the state education department when he was New York’s education commissioner.
That passion includes a track record of work on behalf of bilingual students and those receiving special education services. Infante-Green, the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, oversaw English language learner policy for the New York City Schools before moving to the state department, where she led a 2014 redesign of state policies to serve this population.
The third finalist, Penny Schwinn, is a deputy commissioner in the Texas education department, a post she assumed in 2016 after serving in a top state education position in Delaware for two years. Prior to that, Schwinn founded a Sacramento charter school in 2009 and served as an assistant superintendent in the Sacramento district system for two years.
She has been an outspoken advocate for school choice. “We need more voices in power and empowered to fight for our students, for charters, for public schools, for families, and for choice,” she said in a 2013 speech to the California Carter Schools Association.
Of the three finalists, Schwinn may hew most closely to the aggressive school reform agenda that Peyser and Baker embrace, a platform that that looks to charter schools, school choice, and the shake-up of district systems to drive improvement.
Schwinn, “by all accounts, has great energy and has been effective in these organizations,” Smarick said of the positions she’s held. But her peripatetic history – Schwinn has worked in three different states over the last five years – gives some pause. “There are some questions about that candidacy given the short stints she has had,” said Reville, who now teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Schwinn also seems certain to face questions in Friday’s interview about a controversy over special education enrollment in Texas.
In 2016, the Houston Chronicle reported that Texas school districts had capped the percentage of students receiving special education services at 8.5 percent since 2004. The state education department denied that it had set such a cap – Schwinn blamed local districts for misinterpreting state policy. Any suggestion that state sought to cap special education enrollment in order to save money “is clearly false,” Schwinn wrote, according to a state education department press release issued at the time of the Chronicle story.
Earlier this month, however, the US Department of Education released the results of an investigation that concluded Texas school districts were taking steps to decrease the percentage of students identified for special education services. The report said the Texas state education department failed to ensure all students eligible for such services were being identified, as required by federal law.
The problems with special ed in Texas predated Schwinn’s arrival there by more than a decade. But she has also been at the center of a related controversy involving a no-bid contract with a Georgia firm to review state data on special education services. After advocates raised questions about the $4.4 million contract, state officials terminated it last month.
Tracy Novick, field director for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, thinks the special ed controversies may dim Schwinn’s chances. “I think it becomes hard to find eight votes for her candidacy,” said Novick, referring to the two-thirds vote of the 11-member state education board needed to select a new commissioner.
But Sagan, the state education board chairman, who was a member of the screening committee that winnowed the field to the three finalists, said the screening panel was aware of the issues in Texas. “I don’t think there’s anything that’s news to the committee,” he said of the recent reports, which seemed to imply that committee members were satisfied that Schwinn was not at fault in the controversy.
Selecting Schwinn or Infante-Green would give the state its first woman education commissioner, while Infante-Green would be the first person of color in the post.
Perhaps the biggest issue looming over the selection is whether the state is looking for an outside change agent or someone who knows the terrain and ins and outs of state education policy and politics.
“The trend over the past year or so has been that states that are getting new state chiefs are almost uniformly picking in-state candidates,” said Smarick, the American Enterprise Institute education fellow. As of last November, Smarick wrote in a piece for US News & World Report, in-state candidates had been selected in 13 of the 14 state education commissioner picks made over the previous year.
Smarick said the pattern marks a sharp turn from the era around the federal Race to the Top education grant program in 2009, when states were looking nationally for big reform champions to come in and challenge the policy status quo.
Education policy today seems to be contending with “reform fatigue,” said Smarick. “My hypothesis has been there has become so much, some would say toxic, I would say contentious debate in education reform over the last decade, states are saying we want an education leader who knows our state, who knows our way of doing things.”
That dynamic would favor Riley, who was a principal and district administrator in Boston before being tapped for the Lawrence post by former education commissioner Mitchell Chester, who died last June. What’s more, Riley not only knows the state, he has been outspoken in advocating for a more collaborative approach to change that tries to bridge the fault lines that have characterized education policy debate in recent years.
The Every Students Succeeds Act, passed by Congress in 2015, gives a lot more leeway over education policy to states than did the No Child Left Behind law that it replaced. That means the next commissioner will have a much freer hand to help craft policies to address struggling schools and districts.
“We’re choosing a commissioner at a time when the federal government is backing off and giving more authority to the local districts and states,” said David Driscoll, who served as state education commissioner from 1999 to 2007. “That’s why I, personally, hope all three candidates are prepared to re-engage, or engage, with the local schools and districts and provide that kind of rapport that we’ve had in the past.”
That doesn’t mean there won’t be times, like the case with Lawrence, that the state has to “take strong action and sometimes trump the local districts or schools,” said Driscoll. “After all, it’s the achievement of the students that’s paramount.”