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.