- Associated Press - Sunday, May 29, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Carey Wright wanted to be a superintendent pretty badly, but sometimes you have to wonder if she knew what she was getting into when she took the job leading Mississippi’s public schools.

Just in the last month, the governor made it harder for Wright to reorganize the state Department of Education by vetoing a bill that would have exempted the department from civil service rules, partly over concerns that the department’s chief information officer, John Porter, was being paid more than the legal limit.

Then majorities of the state House and Senate sent ugly letters demanding that the department get on board with a plan to fight the federal government over transgender bathroom policy. Some of those called for Wright to be fired, and they all had threats of political reprisals if Wright and the Board of Education didn’t do what Republican legislative leaders wanted.

During the run-up to Tuesday’s specially called Board of Education meeting, supporters began to fear the board was going to fire Wright. That didn’t happen, and Board Chairman John Kelly of Gulfport gave her a renewed vote of confidence after a long closed session.

Still, though, 2 ½ years into Wright’s term, history suggests that her time at the helm of Mississippi’s schools may be more than half done. Since Richard Boyd became Mississippi’s first appointed superintendent in 1984, the median length of service in the office is four years.

It’s a tough, bruising job, with less power than some observers might realize. The typical superintendent is caught between an imperious Legislature that doesn’t hesitate to dictate the details of how it thinks schools ought to be managed, and local superintendents, who can always opt to voice agreement with new state policies while waiting for the latest fad to pass. For example, who remembers Mississippi’s 1990s devotion to “tech prep” - a program meant to blend academic and vocational education and help students find connections between work and the classroom?

Wright made it to Mississippi after a 41-year career as a teacher, principal and administrator. She jumped from a long career in well-regarded Maryland schools to the District of Columbia in 2009, rising to chief academic officer under Michelle Rhee, who was often embroiled in controversy. Wright applied for a number of superintendent jobs, becoming a finalist but missing out on posts in Des Moines, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska.

Mississippi superintendents who look like they’ve made some progress usually win a chance to get while the getting is good. Henry Johnson got called up to Washington to serve as assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education from 2005 to 2007. His successor, Hank Bounds, made the jump to being Mississippi’s higher education commissioner after four years, and then departed to be president of the University of Nebraska.

If Wright is updating her resume, she can list some wins. She never wavered from Mississippi’s Common Core-linked academic standards and rode out political discontent voiced by Gov. Phil Bryant and others with only minor revisions. Wright credited strong implementation of the new standards after Mississippi was the only state from 2013 to 2015 to show significant improvement in both reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The state has also shown increases in its high school graduation rate, although some of that increase could stem from changes in how state tests are counted in high school. Now, students can fail tests in algebra, biology, U.S. history and English and still graduate.

Wright may still have enough support to be effective. But there surely are easier jobs out there.


Jeff Amy has covered Mississippi government for The Associated Press since 2011. Follow him at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy . His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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