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Gist Gets Another Two Years as R.I. Education Boss

The Rhode Island Board of Education voted 7-3 on June 6 to extend the contract of Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist by two years. Gist, who had been making $190,000 a year, will receive a 2 percent pay raise through the new deal. Her contract was due to run out June 7.

Gist first took office in July 2009 after being selected by the state board. That may not seem like a long time ago, but in fact, there are only 12 state school superintendents who have served longer terms than Gist, according to information from the Council of Chief State School Officers, and one of them, Nebraska Commissioner of Education Roger Breed, is due to step down on June 30. Ten state school chiefs have recently exited or announced they are due to exit their offices. Prominent departures in the last year include Gerard Robinson from Florida and Stan Heffner from Ohio. Tony Bennett went from electoral defeat in Indiana to the appointed job in Florida, and Jason Glass is due to leave the Iowa post for a district position in Colorado. Cindy Hill in Wyoming has technically kept her position but has lost much of her power over K-12 policy through a law passed this year.

In receiving another contract, Gist had the backing of powerful political figures, including Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who recently said he would switch his affiliation from independent to Democrat, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who said the state has made good progress during her term, the Associated Press reported. Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Education awarded the state $125 million in Race to the Top grants, $75 million for K-12 work, and another $50 million specifically for early learning programs.

Gist thanked the board in a tweet and said she was excited to "continue this journey." She followed up with a message about the place of testing in the school system:

But some teachers tell a different story. They are particularly upset about Gist's role in helping to develop new teacher evaluations that rely heavily on high-stakes tests, and thousands of teachers have signed an online petition calling on the state to re-evaluate the portion of the evaluations that rely on student test scores. And at union forum last month, many teachers called for Gist to be replaced. The president of the Rhode Island Education Association said that under Gist, "morale is horrible" and that the voices of teachers and parents have been squelched during Gist's tenure, but the commissioner disputes this argument, saying that the creation of the evaluations was "quite the opposite" of a "top-down effort."

The in-state debate about Gist encapsulates many arguments about evaluations and testing taking place across the country. She is a member of Chiefs for Change, a group of state superintendents that supports the kinds of evaluations Gist wants, as well as A-F school grades, and school choice, including vouchers. These policies have created heated debate in many states. The group is an affiliate of the Foundation for Excellence in Education led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican.

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