Fresh faces

Ken Wagner, top state ed deputy, a finalist for Rhode Island ed chief job

Yvvonne Burrell and Sir Martin look at scholarship information in the Future Center during a school day at Manual High School on Tuesday, May 10, 2011. The Future Center provides the students a place to receive information about financial aid, scholarships and colleges. The graduating seniors at the school are all required to apply and be accepted to some form of post high school educational facility. AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

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.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.