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Regents narrow their choices for New York’s next education chief

Updated — The search for New York’s next education commissioner could wrap up this week, as final candidates have emerged and the Board of Regents has scheduled a last-minute meeting for Tuesday afternoon.

In contention are a mix of superintendents from inside and outside New York state, according to multiple sources. Two of the final candidates, though not the only two, are Christopher Koch, Illinois’s longtime superintendent who stepped down in April, and Dan White, a superintendent for a Western New York region that serves suburban districts.

It’s unclear how many candidates are among the finalists for the state commissioner post, a job that has been unfilled since John King left for the federal education department at the end of 2014. At least one person from outside New York with experience as a district superintendent is also said to still be in the running.

The chosen candidate will oversee the State Education Department at a moment of transition for education policy in New York. He or she will face a department without the extra millions of federal money it had been spending since 2010, a growing movement of parents opposed to state testing, wariness from school districts facing fresh changes to teacher evaluations, and a changing Board of Regents, which oversees the department.

“We need someone who can manage organized change in an effective way,” Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said of the commissioner search last week.

The two known finalists, Koch (pronounced “cook”) and White, are leaders with different kinds of leadership experience. But people who worked closely with the men described them as knowledgeable and practical.

Koch wrapped up a nearly nine-year reign as Illinois’ education chief in April, one of the longest tenures of state education leaders during that period. As the state’s education steward through its Race to the Top era, he worked to introduce new teacher evaluations, boost learning standards, and lower passing scores on state standardized tests — policies that have been rolled out more slowly and thus with much less acrimony than New York’s similar shifts.

“New York would be lucky to get him,” said Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, a group that advocates for many of those policy changes.

Koch didn’t steer entirely clear of controversy during his tenure. He was among several state chiefs who accepted trips paid for by the charitable foundation of the publishing giant Pearson, which had $138 million in contracts with Illinois, according to the New York Times. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman investigated similar trips made by New York officials, but found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Koch is now serving as the interim president of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.

White helms the Monroe County’s Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which provides special academic and support services to students across districts in Monroe County, a position he has held since 2008. As chair of the Monroe superintendents, who oversee the districts surrounding Rochester, White has had exposure to state-level policymaking and met monthly with Tisch and King in Albany.

White was previously a school counselor, a principal, and superintendent of Perry Central School District, an 800-student district south of Rochester.

The candidate the Regents choose will act as the chief executive officer of the State Education Department, an agency of more than 2,600 employees with a $30 million budget. The department shapes education policy for nearly 700 school districts, including New York City. It also oversees the state’s public colleges, libraries, museums, and broadcasting stations, and provides licenses for 52 professions.

Like most high-profile executive searches, details of the process are kept secret until a candidate is picked. State education officials declined to comment on possible candidates.

“The committee is in the final stages of its work,” said Regents Vice Chancellor Anthony Bottar, who is heading the search committee.

The Regents formally launched the hiring process in early February, a little over a month after King resigned after three-and-a-half years on the job. King’s tenure was marked by controversy around the how quickly the state moved to make significant changes to its teacher evaluations and its standardized tests.

Since his resignation, the state’s education policy debates have only become more heated. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has focused his attention on education issues, passing a controversial new evaluation law that included an overhaul of teacher evaluations and dozens of other policy changes. Last October, he vowed to dismantle what he called the state’s public-education “monopoly,” infuriating teachers unions and local districts.

Meanwhile, nearly one-third of the 17 members of the Board of Regents were elected in the last 14 months. The new members are vocal critics of the policies implemented after New York State won $700 million in federal Race to the Top grants in 2010, which compelled states to overhaul their teacher evaluations and teacher preparation programs and raise learning standards.

Now, the federal grant money has been spent, and pushback from districts and teachers unions has swelled.

“This is probably one of the toughest times ever to become a state chief,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, the nonprofit education consulting group. “New York is particularly difficult because you have a governor who’s out front on many of these issues and a Board of Regents that’s challenging.”

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