By Chris Kieffer
JACKSON – The new leader of Mississippi’s public schools said the system’s challenges are “not insurmountable.”
Carey Wright, 63, was introduced to the public on Thursday during her first press conference since being named state superintendent of education on Sept. 25. She spoke of Mississippi’s “untapped potential” and said its high level of poverty was “not an excuse.”
“We are going to address each and every issue we have,” Wright said while speaking at the Mississippi Department of Education headquarters. “We are going to take it head-on with a sense of urgency, and together we are going to accomplish some amazing things. I have no doubt about that.”
Wright had spent her entire professional career in Maryland and Washington, D.C. It was Mississippi’s data – specifically its low student test scores – that drove her to apply for a job nearly a thousand miles away.
“Mississippi’s data tugged at my heart,” Wright said. “I was very specific about applying here.”
Wright spent 36 years as a classroom teacher, principal and district administrator. She was associate superintendent for special education and student services in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and was the chief academic officer of the District of Columbia Public Schools.
The state Board of Education hired her a day after it interviewed five finalists. Wright had recently been a finalist for jobs in Des Moines, Iowa, and Omaha, Neb., and also spoke of being attracted to those districts because of their data and her skill set, according to news reports.
“She comes with broad experience and depth of experience,” said Hal Gage, vice chair of the state board and chairman of its superintendent search. “She also brings a work ethic and personality that I think will serve the state of Mississippi very well.”
Wright cited the poor test scores of Mississippi’s special education students and the gaps between its highest-performing groups of students and its lowest-scoring groups.
“I really feel I can make a difference,” she said.
Wright did not outline specific goals on Thursday, but said her initial focus will be on getting to know board members, taking a comprehensive view of how well existing programs were working and digging deeper into data.
The state’s early childhood education work is critical, she said, and she pledged to fight for more funding in that area. Last year, Mississippi provided its first public funds to pre-K, giving $3 million each to two programs that work to improve quality in early-learning programs.
Among her primary charges will be serving as the chief lobbyist for Mississippi’s public education system. That will include working to get more funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a state law that determines how much money public schools should receive but one that is often ignored.
“We need to figure a way to fully fund MAEP because that has been pulling funding away from teacher supplies and school facilities and things of that nature,” Wright said. “We need to start with fully funding what the law says we should do first. Then we need to start talking about when was the last time teachers had raises.”
The most controversial education law passed last year allowed charter schools, which are funded by taxpayers but given freedom from many regulations that govern traditional schools. Wright will lead as the state’s first charters begin to operate.
“For me, charter schools are part of the solution, but they are not the solution alone,” she said. “The ultimate goal of any public educator would be to not have a need for charter schools because our schools are so amazing that no one would want to leave our public schools. Until we get there, that is a solution, but (charter schools) need to be held accountable for what they do.”
She’ll also oversee Mississippi’s transition to the Common Core State Standards, rigorous new guidelines that have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.
“You are talking to a huge advocate of Common Core,” she said. “I honestly in my heart of hearts believe Common Core has the opportunity to be a game-changer for children across this nation.”
Wright, who officially starts on Nov. 11, looks forward to visiting regions of the state and meeting stakeholders. She will be in Tupelo on Oct. 29 to attend the Mississippi Education Symposium at the BancorpSouth Conference Center.