3 finalists named for state education commissioner

Field narrowed to Lawrence schools receiver and state officials from New York and Texas

THE STATE EDUCATION DEPARTMENT announced three finalists in the search for a new commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education today, tapping a well-known Massachusetts educator and two out of state candidates.

Jeff Riley, the state-appointed receiver for the Lawrence schools, Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy commissioner in the New York state education department, and Penny Schwinn, a deputy state education commissioner in Texas, were selected as finalists by a screening committee that included five voting members drawn from the state board of education as well as 10 non-voting members from the public.

“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,” said board chairman Paul Sagan.

The search for a new commissioner began following the death last June of longtime state education commissioner Mitchell Chester. The field was narrowed today from a pool of more than a dozen applicants, two-thirds of whom were from out of state.

All three finalists started their careers as fellows with Teach for America, the program that brings young college graduates into classrooms for two-year teaching assignments. But they have been on very different trajectories since then.

Angelica Infante-Green.

Infante-Green, the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, grew up in New York City and attended schools there. She was an assistant superintendent in the city’s schools and directed the Office of English Language Learners before moving on to the state education department, where she oversaw bilingual education before becoming deputy commissioner in 2015 in charge of all instruction.

She has a son with autism and, according to a 2017 interview with Education Post, helped advocate as a parent for a dual language program in New York for students with autism, the first such initiative in the country.

Though her mother only had an 8th grade education, Infante-Green said in a 2016 interview with the education organization Chiefs for Change that her parents made education “the most important part of our lives growing up.”

Infante-Green planned on going to law school, but abandoned those plans when she took a Teach for America assignment in the Bronx after completing her undergraduate degree. “I taught and my life changed,” she said in the 2016 interview.

“I believe in equity for all our kids,” she said. “Special education has a special place in my heart,” she added. “It’s not just a professional commitment, it’s a personal commitment,” she said, referring to her son.

Infante-Green is also a big advocate of bilingual education and said she talks to her own children only in Spanish, while her husband speaks to them in English.

She spoke in the 2016 interview of the struggles faced by families looking for schools they can have confidence in. “Our job is not done until parents don’t have to make those difficult choices, where parents don’t have to travel for an hour so their child can go to a school that is not failing,” she said. “That’s the work that we do, and that’s what drives me every day.”

Schwinn oversees all academics for the 5.3 million pre-K to grade 12 students in the Texas public schools. She was previously an associate commissioner in the Delaware Department of Education. She founded a Sacramento, California, charter school and worked as an assistant superintendent in the Sacramento City Unified School District.

In 2016, Schwinn was a finalist for the top education post in Ohio, but withdrew in order to take her current job in Texas.

Penny Schwinn.

She also has experience in elected office. In 2012, Schwinn was elected to the Sacramento County Board of Education.

Schwinn is a big proponent of school choice efforts, as she emphasized in a 2013 speech to the annual convention of the California Charter Schools Association. “We need more voices in power and empowered to fight for our students, for charters, for public schools, for families, and for choice,” she said.

Schwinn also pointed to the need for systemic change beyond the difference that any one school can make. “We need gap closers, but we also need game changers,” she said. “People who are willing to take the risk to be those voices and continue our work at scale. We need more of us to run for office and to lead that charge.”

Riley, the lone in-state finalist, has become a well-known figure in Massachusetts education circles since his appointment in 2012 to serve as receiver for the Lawrence schools. The takeover was made possible by a 2010 law granting the state new power to intervene in chronically low performing schools and districts.

Jeff Riley.

Under Riley, who previously served as an administrator and principal in the Boston Public Schools, Lawrence schools have made big gains, with 10th grade proficiency rates increasing by 18 points in math and 24 points in English language arts. Lawrence math scores for grades 3-8 are now higher than those for Boston schools.

Riley had sweeping power to make change, but he did not apply a blunt instrument to the troubled district. He retained about 90 percent of Lawrence teachers, but replaced half of the principals. He has pushed authority over curriculum and scheduling away from the district office and down to the school level. He also brought a local charter school operator to run one of the district’s most troubled schools.

“Jeff has been a visionary leader for the city of Lawrence,” said Sheila Balboni, executive director of Community Day Charter Public Schools, which was recruited to run the district’s Arlington Elementary School. “He’s interesting because he’s not just a visionary, he’s a manager who is able to put his goals and ideas into action.”

Riley launched very successful “acceleration academies” in which close to 2,000 Lawrence students attend intensive math and English instruction over spring vacation weeks in February and April. While adamant that students must make big gains in basic skills, Riley has been equally passionate about not having that crowd out other subjects. He’s extended the school day for all K-8 students and put a big emphasis on music, arts, and theatre programming.

“Jeff could have stepped on a landmine at any point along the way, and he didn’t,” said Balboni. “He always found a way to bring people together to solve problems.”

Infante-Green and Schwinn did not return messages on Tuesday. Riley declined to comment, but issued a statement in response to a request for comment on his selection.

“I’m honored to be a finalist for the Commissioner’s position and look forward to the public interview later this month,” he said.

Jim Stergios, of the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute, said the next commissioner should be someone who is willing to fight off those looking to slow change and innovation.

In recent years, he said, “special interests have swarmed those disrupting the status quo — the vocational technical schools, charters, the state’s accountability agency, and others who brought change. The new commissioner has to bring urgency and an ability to rein in the department’s reform-blocking apparatchiks.”

The three finalists will be interviewed by the full 11-member state education board on Friday, January 26, in a public session at the Omni Parker House in Boston. The board will hold a special meeting the following Monday, January 29, to vote on a recommendation to state education secretary Jim Peyser, who makes the final selection.

Two-thirds support of the board – at least eight votes – is required to put forward a recommendation.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

 

 

  • Mhmjjj2012

    So, the three people interviewed on the finalists are pro-charter schools:
    Paul Sagan, chairman of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, contributed $496,000 to a pro-charter school, dark money group supporting Question 2 and as if that weren’t enough, he then contributed another $100,000 to a different pro-charter, yes on Question 2 group.
    Sheila Balboni, executive director of Community Day Charter Public Schools.
    Jim Stergios, of the pro-charter schools and anything but public schools Pioneer Institute.
    What does CommonWealth get out of such one-sided reporting? For Pete’s sake Massachusetts voters went to the polls a little over one year ago and cast their ballots against Question 2…rejected more charter schools. Why not quote someone who’s not an advocate for charter schools? After all, one of the three finalists will likely be the new commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education…not the new commissioner of charter schools.

    • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

      “After all, one of the three finalists will likely be the new commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education…not the new commissioner of charter schools.”

      Charter schools ARE public schools, and I don’t think you are being fair to either Jim Stergios or the Pioneer Institute.

      Question 2 was the most expensive referendum in the country in 2016 — both sides spent a lot of money, why no mention of what the “no” folks spent, or whom they got it from?
      And there is a credible argument that the “Soccer Moms” voted no because they saw (correctly) that their own children wouldn’t benefit from this particular incarnation of charter school expansion.

      Reality is that a charter school along the lines of Boston Latin would be incredibly successful in the suburbs — the “Soccer Moms” aren’t universally happy with their local schools, either. But Question 2 didn’t address this, and all politics is local.

      And notwithstanding this, charter schools are public schools, just governed differently.

      • Mhmjjj2012

        Charter schools are publicly funded and privately run. Charter schools also operate under a set of laws and regulations that would be totally unacceptable for public schools…but then you’d know that if you bothered to look it up.
        Jim Stergios and his Pioneer Institute run stealth campaigns to undermine public schools. What’s fair about that?
        The pro-charter schools, pro-Question 2 forces outspent those against the ballot measure by somewhere around 2 to 1 then lost by somewhere around 2 to 1. Besides that, more than $14 million of the pro-Question 2 campaign money came from 14 individuals…that’s right…$14 million from 14 millionaires/billionaires. Add to that some of the Question 2 backers wanted to remain anonymous so they contributed millions to a dark money group that ended paying a record civil forfeiture for failing to comply with the state’s campaign laws.
        And again, charter schools are publicly funded, privately run and operate under a set of laws and regulations that would be unacceptable for public schools.

        • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

          Methinks thou doth protest too much — why is it you so fear charter schools?

          If 14 wealthy individuals donated money to advocate a cause they believed in — well, so what? You’d find the same thing with a lot of other causes ranging from the environment to gay rights. Furthermore, you honestly believe that the MTA/NEA wasn’t on the other side of this — and how do you calculate the value of their in-kind contributions?

          Apparently you aren’t familiar with the powers granted to a Superintendent by Massachusetts law — ALL public schools in Massachusetts are essentially privately run on a multi-year contract basis. (The only power school committees now have is to not renew the Superintendent’s contract.) And Charters are more responsive to parental concerns because if parents pull their kids out, the Charter’s out of business.

          As to the campaign law violation, there is a big difference between the message and what one entity did to advocate for it. Again, methinks you protest too much — why do you so fear competition from charter schools?

          • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

            Three other things: First, children in charter schools do better — all the research shows this.
            Second, the state can and does shut down charter schools that don’t perform.
            Third, charter schools largely benefit urban, poor and minority children.

          • Mhmjjj2012

            First, why don’t you provide some of the research showing children in charter schools do better?
            Second, yes charter schools shutting down are a thing in Massachusetts…about a couple of dozen so far…and think about the resources that went down the drain with those charter schools while they were operating and after they closed. A few years ago, one charter school in Gloucester closed around Christmas…mid-year and the Gloucester public schools had to step up…mid-year…and take those 125+ students in.
            Third, charter schools go where the money is.

          • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

            “why don’t you provide some of the research showing children in charter schools do better?”

            1: I have three graduate degrees in Education — how many do you have?

            2: If you want me to do research for you, I want union wages. Your union’s pay scale — what the MTA would demand that someone with my experience & credentials be paid.

            3: Notwithstanding that, I’d normally refer someone to the Pioneer Institute’s website, notably https://pioneerinstitute.org/school-choice-and-competition/#toggle-id-2, but I doubt you’d accept anything posted there, regardless of source.

            4: Ever hear of something called Google????

            Yes, it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to determine that children in charter schools are doing better.

          • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

            And do you honestly believe that Black parents intentionally send their children to worse schools? How racist is that presumption?!?

          • Mhmjjj2012

            Every student deserves to attend a fully funded and well resourced public school. Right now almost 60% of Boston public schools do not have working libraries. Boston public schools are being drained of somewhere around $150 million this school year to fund charter schools. I noticed you didn’t comment on the fact charter schools are not required by Massachusetts law or regulation to accept new students after February 15th or after 9th grade. Gee, I wonder why?

          • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

            The money follows the child — the BPS has fewer children to teach and hence doesn’t need as much funding.

            Now if they weren’t wasting $8M for teachers not teaching, I’ll bet they could fund the libraries. See: http://dailycaller.com/2016/08/08/boston-paying-8-million-for-100-teachers-to-not-teach/

          • Mhmjjj2012

            Charter schools student demographics mostly don’t reflect the sending public school districts demographics. That means public schools end up with higher percentages of English language learners, low income and special education students AND less money to deal with the higher costs. Charter schools are not required to accept students after February 15th or after certain grades while public schools accept students throughout the school year and in every grade…again incurring higher costs. Didn’t you read Boston public school teacher Garret Virchick’s commentary “Pool teachers not unwanted, just underutilized” that appeared in CommonWealth last month?

          • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

            It’s called “variance” — your statistics are meaningless.
            Take two ELL children — one whose parents support the child learning English and one whose parents oppose it, insisting the child only speak “their” language.

            Which child won’t remain ELL for long?

            The problem with charter school statistics is self-selection. Parents who support education tend to have lower ELL & SPED rates because half of both is the child’s motivation. And that’s parental motivation. As to poverty, married parents aren’t in poverty the way the single mothers are.

            Hence the parents who support their children are going to have children who measure lower on the ELL, SPED, and poverty counts. And you want to punish them for this?

            Bottom line: SPED doesn’t get identified unless the child is failing. Hence charter schools could have MORE SPED students, without anyone knowing.

          • Mhmjjj2012

            Where in Massachusetts is there even one child whose parent or parents or guardians don’t realize the necessity for the child to learn English while living in an English speaking country? What makes it difficult is if the parent or parents or guardian don’t speak English then the child needs extensive resources from the schools to learn English. A couple of years ago The Sun ran an article on the Collegiate Charter School of Lowell whose percentages of English language learners, low income and special education students were significantly below the Lowell public schools. So that charter school had easier to teach and less costly students while draining funds from the Lowell public schools that had a higher percentage of students needing additional services at additional cost. How can you not see that? Every student deserves to attend a fully funded and well resourced public school…including working libraries. And come on, do you really believe “charter schools could have MORE SPED students, without anyone knowing?” LOL to that!

          • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

            “What makes it difficult is if the parent or parents or guardian don’t speak English…”

            Let’s start with having your children watch American (English-language) TV or buying a satellite dish so they can watch television in a non-English language.

            “And come on, do you really believe “charter schools could have MORE SPED students, without anyone knowing?”

            How many IEPs have you helped write? For that matter, how many courses in the exceptional child have you taken?

          • Mhmjjj2012

            I can’t believe someone with “three graduate degrees in Education” thinks the way children should learn English is to watch television. How many hours a day over how many years will it take for children to learn English watching television? How did you get those degrees? Watching television?

          • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

            What, if anything, do you know about language acquisition?

            NB: Hours of viewing is a different issue, I mentioned language….

          • Mhmjjj2012

            It seems like you are willing to throw up everything…including the kitchen sink…to avoid specifics on charter schools. Why is that? Either you are not well versed in charter schools details or you are very well versed in charter schools’ shortcomings and will do anything – everything – to avoid discussing them. Now, which one could it be?

          • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

            Whatever.

            I’ve wasted way too much time attempting to respond to you and ignored way too many personal insults from you. Enough is enough.

            Mhmjjj2012|/dev/null — everything from you belongs in the bit bucket.

            Have a nice life.

          • Mhmjjj2012

            1. I didn’t ask for your academic credentials.
            2. I wish you would do research for you…for free…just because you want to be informed…then make your case based on your research. That’s not what you’ve been doing here. And you don’t even bother to read the sources I’ve provided to you. I am not affiliated with any union or the MTA at all…ever… I am a grandmother whose grandchild will be attending a public school. Also, I have grand nieces and nephews attending public schools. So I have an interest in fully funded and well resourced public schools.
            3. Pioneer Institute? LOL!
            4. For someone who went to the trouble of calling himself Ed Cutting, Ed. D. it’s sad you need Google.
            Charter schools cherry pick students, use excessive disciple, counsel out students and do not backfill empty seats even when they have a wait list.
            It actually takes very little effort to determine how charter schools really operate.

          • Mhmjjj2012

            Under state law and regulations charter schools have a sibling preference that can mean 40% to 50% or more of seats are excluded from the lottery and are simply given to siblings of current students. Charter schools are not required to accept students after certain grades or after February 15th. K-8 charter schools are not required to accept new students after grade 4, K-12 charter schools are not required to accept new students after grade 6, and charter high schools are not required to accept new students after grade 9. A law was passed back in 2010 to have charter school student demographics be more reflective of the sending school districts but after seven years there’s still no comparison when it comes to special education students, low income and English language learners. Anyhow, do you think it would be a good idea for public schools to decline new students after February 15th or after 9th grade? How would that work out for the students in families that move due to job transfers and divorce? How could that possibly be considered good public policy? And yet, that’s how charter schools operate.

          • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

            Me STILL thinks thou doth protest too much.

            Everything you raise could be raised against those with solar panels on their roofs.
            So do you want to be consistent and eliminate net metering and higher prices for “green” electricity? Doing that would eliminate both solar and wind overnight….

          • Mhmjjj2012

            Charter schools laws and regulations = solar panels on roofs? I don’t know how you came up with that. Desperation? Distraction? Posted the comment to the wrong article?

  • Mhmjjj2012

    When The Globe’s James Vaznis wrote his article, “Three finalists for state education commissioner named,” he interviewed Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts School Superintendents Association and Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. Why weren’t those two people called for their opinion?

  • Patrick B

    How does this article not mention Schwinn’s recently slamming by the Dept of Ed for illegally withholding Special Education services in Texas or for violating the state’s no bid contracts there?