Ken Wagner, a former school psychologist and principal who has ascended the ranks of the State Education Department in recent years, is a final candidate to become Rhode Island’s next state education commissioner, sources say.
Wagner has effectively helmed the department alongside acting Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin over the first half of 2015 after John King’s departure last year. Wagner would be the latest in a string of state education officials to leave over the last year, which has been marked by tumult over education policies and the end of the state’s Race to the Top funding, as well as the choice of new Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who started Monday.
Wagner, who did not respond to a request for comment, joined the department as its data director in 2009 and was soon promoted to assistant commissioner by then-Commissioner David Steiner, according to his LinkedIn page. His oversight quickly expanded to include assessments, curriculum, and education technology before being promoted to senior deputy commissioner in January after King stepped down.
Though Wagner wasn’t the acting commissioner, he became the face of the department in recent months, moderating the high-profile summit that brought researchers to Albany to discuss changes to teacher evaluations. Some within the department saw Wagner as the top internal candidate to replace King.
“Ken has credentials to be in any number of jobs so I’m not overly surprised,” said Regent Roger Tilles, when told of Wagner’s candidacy. “I’m disappointed. I think he’s done a good job.”
The transition would leave Elia with more room to choose her top leaders. But it also highlights a challenge for the state education department: how to hold onto personnel and institutional knowledge as it loses money and influence in the post-Race to the Top era.
In 2010, New York was awarded nearly $700 million through the federal Race to the Top program, which spurred states to overhaul education policies. That money was used to help districts implement new teacher evaluation systems and the Common Core learning standards and to devise new state tests, among other changes.
That federal funding effectively ran out last month. Among Elia’s most immediate decisions will be which programs should continue at the department, which last year had 45 Race to the Top-funded staff positions. The privately funded Regents Research Fund, which employed temporary staff members as consultants on the Race to the Top initiatives, has also been dismantled.
Other officials who have left or are planning to leave include Bill Clark, who left the state’s charter school office last month to become executive director of the education organization School Turnaround; assistant commissioner Julia Rafal-Baer, who announced her plans to leave at last month’s Board of Regents meeting; and Ken Slentz and Cosimo Tangorra, Jr., both deputy commissioners who have left in the past year.
“In every transition there are shifts in staffing, and I would expect this administration will not be different,” Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said. “It’s just logical.”
Tisch declined to comment on Wagner’s job prospects.
“One of the great things about working together with people is that when they leave you is that they get promoted, so I wouldn’t be unhappy if that was the case,” Tisch said when asked about the Rhode Island education chief position. “He deserves every good thing that is coming to him.”
The Ocean State has just 300 public schools, but it has played host to some high-profile education debates, especially after the 2010 mass firing and re-hiring of teachers in Central Falls. Its last education commissioner, Deborah Gist, introduced new teacher evaluations and changed the state’s school funding formula. Gist’s contract officially ended on July 1, although she announced her departure in the winter and is now leading Tulsa, Oklahoma’s school system.
The Rhode Island appointment is controlled by the governor, although a board of education has to formally sign off. The board, called the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, is next scheduled to meet on July 13. A spokeswoman for Gov. Gina Raimondo office did not respond to requests for comment.
Raimondo won last year’s Democratic primary and the general election without the backing of the state teachers union, which remained upset about pension cuts she spearheaded as Rhode Island’s treasurer. One of her first moves as governor was to name Stefan Pryor, a founder of the Achievement First network of charter schools and the former Connecticut education commissioner, to lead the state’s economic development efforts.
Wagner was not the only leader with New York credentials considered for the Rhode Island job. Jean-Claude Brizard, a former deputy chancellor at the city’s education department and the former head of Chicago and Rochester’s schools, said in an email that he had interviewed earlier this year but was “no longer in the mix.”