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Long Island

LI educators call for experienced public school official as NY education chief

State Education Commissioner John King, Jr. listens to

State Education Commissioner John King, Jr. listens to a speaker during a forum on Common Core learning reforms at the Stephen and Harriet Myers Middle School on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013, in Albany. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

Long Island educators and parent leaders, shaken by turmoil over state testing, rollout of the Common Core academic standards and teacher evaluations, say it's time for an experienced public school administrator to have the top job in the state Education Department.

Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., who announced last week he is leaving for an adviser's post in the U.S. Department of Education, formerly headed a network of New York charter schools. His predecessor, David Steiner, was an education dean at Hunter College in Manhattan.

School administrators across the Island said now is the moment for the state Board of Regents to appoint a commissioner with solid practical experience in a traditional public school setting to bring stability to an educational system roiled by controversy.

"I would hope that they would find a commissioner who has experience working in a public school and appreciates the complexities and all that's involved in dealing with kids in a regular educational setting," said Hank Grishman, superintendent of the 2,900-student Jericho school district.


Reforms under King

Grishman has 37 years of experience as a superintendent on Long Island and upstate, and is a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The Regents appointed King, 39, in May 2011. Throughout his tenure, the state's education policy-setters -- often citing the imperative of having students college- and career-ready -- instituted major reforms.

Some of those changes had begun in the era of the No Child Left Behind initiative of former President George W. Bush, as well as the National Governors Association's push for the Common Core national standards.

Others, including the state's new principal and teacher evaluations, were driven by federal and state officials and are of more recent vintage: For example, New York's receipt of $700 million from President Barack Obama's Race to the Top program was tied to creation and implementation of a teacher job-ratings system that for the first time was tied to students' performance on state standardized tests.


Federal money involved

When educators in local districts and parents complained about the rush to put Common Core and job ratings in place, a familiar Education Department response was that failure to follow the agency's timeline would result in loss of federal money.

Still, even critics conceded that both King and Steiner were intelligent leaders with strong visions of how schools, teacher training and curricula could improve. King is leaving his post at the end of the month to become senior adviser to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Change, however, has come at a price, in terms of public perception and goodwill.

Last spring, tens of thousands of students in grades 3 through 8 statewide opted out of the tougher standardized tests in English Language Arts and mathematics -- the largest such action known, and one fueled through use of social media. Many parents who had their children refuse to take the tests styled it as an act of civil disobedience against what they viewed as Albany's mismanagement.

In addition, King and Merryl K. Tisch, chancellor of the Board of Regents, faced outrage at a series of public meetings across the state. And New York's largest teacher union issued a vote of no confidence in the commissioner.

Jeanette Deutermann, a North Bellmore mother of two and organizer of the LI Opt-Out movement, said a strong advocate of traditional public education is needed as some state leaders, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, are calling for an increase in the number of charter schools, which are taxpayer-funded, but run by independent boards.

"Right now, public education is under assault," Deutermann said.

Several members of the Regents, whose next regular meeting starts Monday in Albany, acknowledged the demand for a candidate with public school experience.

Regent Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who is on the search committee, said any successful candidate will be "steeped in public education."

Tisch, who heads the board, said candidates will need to "articulate deep knowledge" of curriculum and instruction from preschool through high school.

Tisch took issue, however, with those who criticized King for what they described as his lack of experience in public education.

"The last time I looked, charter schools are public schools," the chancellor said. "I think John has deep experience in P-12 education."


Experience called 'critical'

Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who sits on the Assembly's Education and Higher Education committees and chairs the Committee on Government Operations, said "experience in public education is critical" for the next commissioner.

"It enables educators in the state to be heard better," he said.

Assembly Democrats, as the legislature's largest voting bloc, choose members of the Regents board.

A career background in traditional public schooling does not guarantee that a commissioner will find it easy to deal with intertwined issues of academic policy and politics in Albany.

Thomas Sobol, who served as commissioner from 1987 to 1995, was the last public schools administrator in that office. He had been superintendent of the Scarsdale school district in Westchester County, which ranks near the top of suburban systems nationwide.

Two years into his administration, Sobol became enmeshed in a controversy over the state's curriculum guides when a task force he appointed asserted that the guides reflected a "systematic bias toward European culture."


One 'who understands'

That set off a statewide debate that lasted for years, amid charges from some academic traditionalists and politicians that the state was abandoning so-called Western values.

Educators admitted that the politics of a state as diverse as New York can be a minefield for even the most seasoned administrator.

But, they said, someone with experience running a public school system probably would find it easier to convince other school administrators that he or she is on their side, even when pushing for systematic changes.

"They should have a commissioner who understands the system, who listens to communities and can handle controversy gracefully," said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of the Middle Country district and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

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