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Shirley Leung

Massachusetts had the chance to break the glass ceiling in education. The board blinked.

Another day and another white male insider climbs to the top of the state education system. Tell me something I didn’t already know was going to happen.

It’s part of a troubling pattern that has produced all-male casts at the highest ranks of our public education system. When the next nationwide search comes along, I wonder at what point out-of-state female candidates will wise up and get the message: No need to apply.

On Monday, it took 11 members of the state board of education less than two hours to deliberate and recommend Jeff Riley, the superintendent of Lawrence public schools, as the next commissioner of elementary and secondary education. He bested two female finalists of color — one from New York, one from Texas.


Does Riley deserve the job?

Yes. Under him, the troubled Lawrence public school system has made huge strides. He has also been the state-appointed receiver since 2012 and done the hard work — such as extending school days and brooming out underperforming teachers and principals — to improve test scores and graduation rates. Before that, Riley was the chief innovation officer for Boston public schools. During the search, the state made clear its top priority was to hire someone who could close the achievement gap among students of color, and that’s what Riley has been doing in Lawrence.

Could the other finalists have done the job?

Certainly Angélica Infante-Green, a deputy commissioner at New York State Education Department, could have. She has distinguished herself in her work with English language learners and came across as an inspiring leader during her public interview on Friday. If selected, she would have been the first woman and Latina to serve as the state commissioner overseeing K-12 schools.


“I am disappointed. I don’t want to take anything from Jeff. I like Jeff. I think he will do a good job,” said board member Margaret McKenna who voted for Infante-Green.

“It’s hiring the right person at the right time. We think of Massachusetts as number one in all rankings, but we are 49th in Latino achievement,” added McKenna, the former Suffolk University president. “It’s a sort of missed opportunity.”

In a tweet, state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a former public school teacher, praised Riley but criticized the board for not selecting Infante-Green. “Her candidacy also offered the Board an opportunity, with a truly excellent applicant, to have our education leadership more closely reflect the workforce it relies on and the students it serves. They will need to redouble their efforts in this respect.”

Infante-Green garnered three votes, while Riley clinched eight. The third finalist, Penny Schwinn, chief deputy commissioner of academics at the Texas Education Agency, did not get any votes.

If this whole process sounds familar, it should. Last year, the presidency of Salem State University went to the local white male candidate and parochialism won the day.

When the Salem Board of Trustees chose John Keenan — a former state representative and popular Salem State administrator — over more experienced female candidates, the decision ignited a debate over the lack of diversity in the top ranks of public higher education.

A decade ago, women helmed five of the nine state universities; today, that number is zero. Opportunities abounded for the state to maintain parity in the university corner office. In recent years, there have been eight presidential vacancies at the state university level, and women made up close to 40 percent of the finalists, according to statistics compiled by EOS Foundation, a nonprofit that is seeking to diversify leadership ranks.


Yet for whatever reason, board after board of trustees couldn’t get themselves to pick a woman. Same thing happened Monday.

Gail Deegan, a former chief financial officer of Houghton Mifflin, was in the Infante-Green camp, and attended Friday’s public candidate interviews and Monday’s board vote.

She summarized the decision as coming down to: “I know Jeff. I have seen Jeff Riley’s work. I trust Jeff Riley. These other two people: I don’t know.”

Paul Sagan, former CEO of Akamai Technologies, chairs the K-12 education board and told me before Monday’s vote that he doesn’t know what happened at Salem State beyond the headlines, but he’s confident about the search process for the successor to Mitchell Chester, who died suddenly in June.

“I believe this has been the most broad and diverse process to find great candidates,” Sagan said. “We found three really great people without trying to fill out a cast. We weren’t trying to fill roles.”

As the former head of a publicly traded company, Sagan understands the pressure to put more women in the corner office and in the boardroom.

“We might get criticism or accolades about these questions of diversity,” he said. “At the end of the day, the children of Massachusetts will hold us accountable whether we helped them get the educational opportunities they deserve.”


So is that it for women seeking top education jobs in Massachusetts? It’s easy to get discouraged when you see the all-male cast: Secretary of Education Jim Peyser, Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago, Commissioner of Early Education Tom Weber, and University of Massachusetts president Marty Meehan.

Riley can help break up the boys club by making sure he’s doing his part to build the pipeline of women who can climb to the top. No more excuses in the female-dominated world of K-12 education.

For that matter, Governor Charlie Baker should get a better handle on why a gender gap persists at the top of public education in Massachusetts. I know he gets it. He’s got women in key Cabinet posts.

It’s 2018. An all-male cast shouldn’t be the norm.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.