Lawrence schools Superintendent Jeffrey Riley and two high-ranking education officials outside Massachusetts emerged Tuesday as finalists in the search for a new commissioner of elementary and secondary education, state officials announced.
The two other finalists are Angélica Infante-Green, deputy commissioner of the Office of Instructional Support P-12 in the New York State Education Department, and Penny Schwinn, chief deputy commissioner of academics at the Texas Education Agency.
The announcement followed months of speculation that Riley would be a finalist. Intrigue intensified in November when Riley announced that he would step down in June as the state-appointed superintendent of Lawrence schools, which is in state receivership.
Riley also has been repeatedly praised by Governor Charlie Baker, who noted in his State of the Commonwealth address two years ago that Riley “isn’t a big talker — he’s a doer.” He lauded Riley for renegotiating the teacher contract to lengthen the school days, forging partnerships between traditional and charter schools, and cutting the central office budget by 30 percent while reinvesting that money into the classrooms.
But many educators and advocates said it was too early to tell whether Riley was a lock for the commissioner’s post. All three candidates will be interviewed in public next week.
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts School Superintendents Association, said having a commissioner with a long history of working at a district or school level is very appealing.
“We don’t need a commissioner who is going to be just a compliance enforcer,” he said. “We need someone to come in and cheer the next level of reform and who can bring the field together in a better way.”
In that respect, Riley’s experience in Lawrence could give him an edge.
“He’s done amazing work in bringing collaboration in the position he was put into as receiver by the state,” Scott said. “He tried to do things to engage people at the district and building level. That is an attraction you can’t ignore.”
Riley, who holds a master’s degree in education from Harvard University, is the only finalist who has never worked inside a state education agency. He began his education career as a special-education teacher in Baltimore and worked as a counselor in Brockton, a middle school principal in Tyngsborough and Boston, an administrator at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury, and a chief innovation officer in the Boston schools.
“I’m honored to be a finalist for the commissioner’s position and look forward to the public interview later this month,” Riley said in a statement.
The three candidates share one common thread: They were all part of Teach for America, a national nonprofit that puts recent college graduates into urban and rural classrooms.
Infante-Green and Schwinn could not be reached for comment.
Schwinn, who founded a charter school in California and has held three jobs over the last five years in three states, is generating some concern.
Over the past few months, she has been embroiled in a controversy in Texas over awarding a no-bid contract to a private firm to collect data on special education students that has sparked a federal complaint. State education officials last month abruptly ended the contract.
Schwinn, who holds a doctorate in education from Claremont Graduate University, also has overseen the state’s effort to prescribe fixes to special education programs after a US Education Department investigation found widespread violations. Those issues extend well beyond Schwinn’s two-year tenure at the department.
News of her possible departure lit up parents’ phones in Texas Tuesday.
“It kind of feels like she is blowing through town here at a time when the kids we are working to protect need stability and someone who has long-term commitment to fixing the problems,” said Cherly Fries, cofounder of Texans for Special Education Reform, a grass-roots organization of parents, teachers, and advocates.
The third candidate, Infante-Green, holds two master’s degrees from Mercy College. She has distinguished herself with her work with English language learners, first in New York City, where she worked as a teacher and administrator for nearly two decades, and then at the New York State Education Department, which she joined in 2013, rising to deputy commissioner.
Her duties there have grown over the years, and she oversees a number of areas, from the rollout of computer-based standardized testing to the development of new English, math, and science teaching standards.
The finalists will be interviewed publicly by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Friday, Jan. 26, at the Omni Parker House, and a vote is likely the following Monday. Education Secretary James Peyser, a state board member, has final say on who is appointed.
A screening committee, working with the search firm Korn Ferry, selected the finalists from 18 applicants. More than a third were women and 40 percent were people of color, state officials said.
“I am very pleased with this group of finalists and confident that whoever is ultimately selected to serve as our next commissioner will be extremely qualified to build on our track record of educational excellence and address the need to close the achievement gaps that remain among our most urgent challenges,” Paul Sagan, chairman of the state education board, said in a statement Tuesday.
But Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said he was surprised that the search did not yield a single big-name finalist.
“If they are conducting an intergalactic search and this was the best they could do, I would say there was underwhelming interest in this [job] across the country,” he said. “I thought there would have been a sitting commissioner who would be eager to come to Massachusetts.”
The last search for a commissioner a decade ago did not generate a big national name either, yielding a local superintendent, a high-ranking Ohio official, and someone from the foundation world.
Mitchell Chester, the Ohio candidate, ultimately got the job and held the position until he died of cancer last June.James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.