Chiefs for Change Announces New Focus on Big Cities, John White as New Leader

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 10, 2015 3 min read
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Chiefs for Change, the advocacy group of state superintendents prominent for supporting the Common Core State Standards and teacher evaluations based on test scores, has announced that it is shifting its mission to focus more on major urban districts.

The group is also undergoing a reorganization, and is ending its association with the K-12 foundation begun by former Florida governor Jeb Bush in order to become an independent group.

The group announced March 9 that it has tapped a new leader, Louisiana Superintendent John White as its new chairman. He’ll take over for New Mexico Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera, who has headed up Chiefs for Change for the last two years.

In a statement announcing the changes, Chiefs for Change outlined the following priorities for the group going forward:

  • “Grow its network of bipartisan education leaders to include both large-city superintendents and state education chiefs.”
  • “Serve as a united voice around key policy issues, starting with calling for an ESEA reauthorization that empowers local educators while providing valuable information to parents.”
  • “Return states and big cities to their role as the engines of innovation by broadly disseminating state and local practices and policies that have advanced student achievement, forming a fresh vision for American education policy.”
  • “Identify and develop the next generation of forward-leaning state and city education leaders nationwide.”

Membership in the group, which also supports digital education and school choice, has dipped in recent years from a high of nine in 2012 down to the current roster of four. And one of those four, Rhode Island Commissioner Deborah Gist, recently agreed to take over as superintendent of Tulsa schools in Oklahoma. At the same time, Gist could in theory serve as a member of the revamped Chiefs for Change in her capacity leading the Tulsa district.

UPDATE: In an interview, White told me that discussions about altering the model and mission of Chiefs for Change have been underway for about a year now. He highlighted the lack of progress by Congress so far in reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as an example of “stasis” at the federal level, and how state and big-city K-12 leaders can provide a counterpoint.

“It’s the job of states and large cities to develop the ideas that ultimately have promise at a national level,” he said.

White and Skandera denied that Jeb Bush’s possible run for president in 2016 influenced the group’s decision to break away from the foundation he started, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, although Skandera did say that perceptions about Chiefs for Change and its links to the foundation did lead people to certain conclusions about its work. And White also said he wasn’t concerned about how the group would deal with divided politics in cities where some Democrats, in particular, might support the group’s work while other Democrats would oppose it.

“In every context, there are difficult politics. What’s important is the type of leadership that leads us beyond politics,” he said.

Gist will stay with the organization in her new job as Tulsa superintendent. White said the organization is talking with a “large number” of urban as well as state superintendents about possibly joining the group, but didn’t name any names.

He also said the group has discussed its new mission with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools.

“States are quickly put into partisan boxes based on leadership. I think this is an opportunity to broaden the conversation,” Skandera said of the new focus on districts.

White jumped on board at the peak of the group’s membership in 2012, when he became its ninth member. Since then, he’s become embroiled in a policy brawl with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, over the Common Core State Standards and aligned tests. However, on White’s recommendation, the Louisiana state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education recently agreed to move up a previously scheduled review of the common core, which will now be completed by the end of the next school year. It also agreed to post for public comment the state’s request for proposal for a state assessment in 2016 and beyond.

Since the group began in 2010, Chiefs for Change has been an affiliate of the Foundation for Excellence in Education that was founded by Bush. Going forward, however, Chiefs for Change will be entirely separate from that foundation and won’t receive any funding from it.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.