Turnover at the top

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

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

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.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.