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Amid transition at New York ed department, Ken Wagner to decamp for Rhode Island

At this Boulder County preschool, collecting eggs from the nesting box is one of the most coveted jobs.
At this Boulder County preschool, collecting eggs from the nesting box is one of the most coveted jobs.
Abby Miller

Ken Wagner, a top state education official who helped manage the department after former Commissioner John King’s resignation last year, has been tapped to be Rhode Island’s next education commissioner, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced Wednesday morning.

Wagner’s departure is a high-profile loss for the department, where he had risen from a data analyst to senior deputy commissioner and was involved in some of the state’s most controversial policy moves. He joins a string of state education officials who have left the department 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.

The announcement comes just six weeks after New York wrapped up its own search for a new commissioner with the choice of MaryEllen Elia, who started this week. Wagner stepped into a leading role during the six-month transition period, when officials had to react to sweeping changes to the state’s teacher evaluation law and a growing opposition movement to the state’s testing system, earning praise from colleagues for his leadership.

“From the time John left to the appointment of the commissioner, there was a lot of thorny issues going on,” Chancellor Merryl Tisch said. “He guided us during very complicated moments.”

Elia praised Wagner for staying on after King left and executing “a smooth and efficient transition.”

“My conversations with Ken have been among the most productive I’ve had in my new role,” Elia said in a statement. “I very much appreciate his willingness to share his insights and to offer advice.”

Wagner’s tenure in Albany began in 2009, and he was involved in many of the policy shifts spurred by Race to the Top funding, including the introduction of teacher evaluations tied to test scores, the failed development of a statewide student data system, and the implementation of the Common Core learning standards. Some in the department saw him as a top internal candidate to replace King.

But Wagner kept a relatively low profile during his tenure, a quality that Raimondo played up at a press conference on Wednesday.

“He’s a work horse, not a show horse,” Raimondo said.

A press release issued by Raimondo’s office Wednesday steered clear of controversial issues. It noted Wagner’s long career in public education, from his election to his district’s school board while still in high school to his experience as a school psychologist and principal. The release also pointed to his role developing EngageNY, a website of free curriculum materials aligned to the Common Core that has earned favorable reviews and is used by districts across the country.

“My standard for success is very simple,” Wagner told reporters in Providence. “If it’s something that helps teachers and students learn, then that’s what we should be doing.”

New York’s Julia Rafal-Baer, an assistant education commissioner, will join Wagner in Rhode Island, a source said Wednesday. Wagner, Rafal-Baer, and Raimondo’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Wagner’s appointment is subject to a vote by Rhode Island’s Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, which is scheduled for Monday.

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