By Chris Kieffer and Bobby Harrison
JACKSON – The Mississippi Board of Education chose a Maryland educator as the next leader of the state’s school system.
Carey Wright, whose selection was announced Wednesday, becomes the first female chosen as Mississippi’s permanent state superintendent of education.
“I feel there’s a tremendous amount of untapped potential in the state,” Wright said in a Mississippi Department of Education press release. “My background and experience are what drew me to apply for this position.
“I am honored to be selected as the next state superintendent and am committed to doing whatever is necessary to create the finest educational system in our nation.”
Wright was traveling on Wednesday and not available for further comment.
She spent three years as chief academic officer of the Washington, D.C., public school system, where she worked in the Michelle Rhee administration.
Rhee is known for her combative style, hard-line school reform stances and teacher-accountability programs that have drawn her praise from some circles and criticism from others.
Wright recently was a finalist for local superintendent jobs in Omaha, Neb., and Des Moines, Iowa. She was quoted by the Omaha World-Herald in December as saying she has a different style than Rhee but the same focus on students.
Wright remained in the D.C. school district after Rhee left in 2010. She was there until March, when she founded an educational consulting company.
A 36-year veteran administrator and teacher, Wright has spent the majority of her education career in Maryland. She was the associate superintendent for special education and student services in Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools.
“The board felt that Dr. Wright possessed all of the qualities we were seeking in the next state superintendent of education,” Hal Gage of Vicksburg, the board’s vice chairman and head of the search process, said in a press release.
“She has a track record of strong leadership, instructional expertise and a commitment to ensuring all students achieve at high levels. Mississippi has made great strides in improving education over the last few years, and we believe we have selected the right person to build on this achievement.”
Gage could not be reached for further comment on Wednesday.
One of Wright’s primary duties will be dealing with a governor and legislators who recently expanded the state’s charter school law, required students to be able to read on grade level before advancing past the third grade and made the first state appropriation to pre-K education.
There has been talk of other possible changes in 2014, including providing students additional school choice.
Gov. Phil Bryant said he had spoken to Wright by phone and stressed “the importance of advancing the transformational ‘Education Works’ voted into law this year. I look forward to working with her in addressing the educational challenges our state faces.”
Wright will face Senate confirmation during the 2014 session. Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, who will oversee that process, said he was “glad the board made a selection and finished that. At some point I would like to talk to her about where we are in Mississippi and about the reforms we did last year.”
House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon, said, “I am excited. I want to hear her game plan and get her thoughts on our reforms. But I will let her get her bags unpacked first.”
Wright also will be the primary representative for the state Board of Education, which at recent hearings with legislative leaders expressed renewed support for the full funding of education. Since 2008, kindergarten through 12th grade education has been underfunded by $1.3 billion under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula.
Local superintendents said they look forward to working with the new state leader.
“Being a superintendent in Mississippi under the leadership of State Superintendents Dr. (Tom) Burnham and Dr. (Lynn) House, I really have appreciated the fact they have been transparent and willing to work with superintendents,” said Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden. “I have faith in the state board and in their choice, and I look forward to working with the new superintendent, Dr. Wright.”
Added Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks: “She brings a lot of expertise to the table, and I look forward to working with her to improve education in the state of Mississippi.”
State Board President Wayne Gann of Corinth was not involved in the search because of a conflict of interest. His son-in-law, Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress, was among the initial applicants for the job.
He said he looks forward to working with Wright to “further the goals of the state Board of Education.”
Gann also said he appreciates the service of Lynn House, who has served as interim state superintendent of education since Tom Burnham retired in July 2012. House announced on Wednesday that she will retire from the state Department of Education but will continue in her interim role until Wright begins her new job on Nov. 1.
Wright was selected by the State Board, which interviewed five finalists in a closed meeting on Tuesday. Clinton Superintendent Phil Burchfield was the only other finalist who was identified.
Search consultant firm Ray and Associates Inc., led the search and screened and evaluated a preliminary list of 64 candidates. It presented the board with 11 semifinalists, and the board then chose the five finalists.
“I trust the school board,” said Sam Bounds, executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents. “I trust that Dr. Wright will come in with the mentality that we are in Mississippi and we need to take the bull by the horns and move forward. I am looking forward to working with her to move our state forward. I’m extremely hopeful.”