Ken Wagner, senior deputy commissioner for education policy at the...

Ken Wagner, senior deputy commissioner for education policy at the New York State Education Department, moderates a panel of educators from across New York State during a "Learning Summit" in Albany, Thursday, May 7, 2015. Credit: Hans Pennink

Ken Wagner, the state's second-ranked education official, who went from his first position as a teenaged Seaford school board trustee to handling major controversies in Common Core testing and curriculum, has been named Rhode Island's new education commissioner.

The elevation of Wagner, 47, from senior deputy commissioner in New York State to the top spot in Rhode Island, was announced Wednesday at a Providence news conference by Gov. Gina M. Raimondo, who cited Wagner's "expertise and steady hand" in dealing with volatile education issues.

His nomination is expected to be approved Monday by an advisory council, then ratified by Rhode Island's Board of Education.

"I believe in high standards," Wagner said at the news conference. He added that confronting education-related challenges facing the state -- issues that include charter schools and new tests -- "will pay off for the children and families of Rhode Island."

Wagner's departure from Albany coincides with the arrival of New York State's new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, who formerly was a longtime school superintendent in the Tampa, Florida, area.

Elia, who took office Monday, praised Wagner Wednesday for steering the State Education Department through complicated policy issues and helping her personally in a time of transition.

"My conversations with Ken have been among the most productive I've had in my new role," she said.

Wagner is the latest in a procession of top-ranked New York education officials who have left for other jobs in the past 15 months, including former Commissioner John B. King Jr. and two deputy commissioners, Kenneth Slentz and Cosimo Tangorra.

Wagner was the state's point man on Common Core assessments. Like King and other top education officials, he became a target for parents, teachers and politicians angry over the growing stresses of annual testing and teacher evaluations linked to students' test scores. As many as 200,000 students statewide in grades 3-8 opted out of state English and math tests in April -- the biggest boycott of its type in the nation.

Jeanette Deutermann, a North Bellmore mother of two and leader of Long Island's opt-out movement, said Wednesday that she already has received email messages from parent organizers in Rhode Island asking about Wagner's role in New York's testing program. Rhode Island, like New York, adopted the Common Core academic standards several years ago.

"We definitely feel for Rhode Island in what they're going to go through," Deutermann said. "When these reformers get shuttled from state to state, what we see is that resistance grows very quickly."

Wagner, as an 18-year-old senior at Seaford High School, was elected to the district's school board in 1986, defeating the panel's incumbent vice president.

"He got the students out to vote, he got the adults out to vote, the community loved him," recalled Michael Patterson, the board's president at the time.

Patterson, who is now 70 and retired, predicted that Wagner's willingness to work hard and listen patiently to others would serve him well in Rhode Island.

After working as a school psychologist, Wagner went on to serve as an assistant middle school principal in the Herricks district and a principal in the Shoreham-Wading River system. He also held district-level administrative posts in Shoreham-Wading River and Eastern Suffolk BOCES.

Among his accomplishments at the State Education Department, Wagner led the development of EngageNY, an online video guide covering curriculum aligned with the national Common Core academic standards. The website has been downloaded more than 20 million times by educational leaders in other states and teachers across the country.

"Ken had the unenviable job of leading some of the state's most controversial reform initiatives, and he did so in a very cautious, measured and thoughtful way," said Tom Rogers, superintendent of Syosset schools and a former executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "I always found him to be accessible and open to questions and critiques, and wish him well in his next career."

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