Just as the Presidential and state elections were coming down to the wire, State Education Commissioner Richard Mills decided to announce his impending retirement. Mills is a class act. He’s a gentleman, an incredibly hard worker and a man with standards that just won’t quit. He is only 63 years old and will certainly be grabbed by the right folks. I believe that his departure is a profound loss for New York.
Mills owed his tenure to the Board of Regents, which in New York State is a separate group of people elected by the Assembly and the Senate. Since there are more Democrats than Republicans in the two bodies, it is the Democratic group of legislators who pick the
Regents. Officially, the Regents pick the Commissioner, who has a huge amount of clout, making this one instance in which the governor does not make the choice. Informally, however, the governor can exert significant pressure. I was standing next to a former commissioner once when Mario Cuomo walked by. “He’ll ignore me,” predicted the commissioner. Right he was, and in just a short while he was gone. The governor may not choose the commissioner, but he sure as hell can either work with the Regents to deliver money to education or give them a hard time.
Mills spent a lot of time developing a cadre of educational leaders in New York State. His insistence on a set of standards for every schoolchild predated President Bush’s infamous “No Child Left Behind Act.” The main difference is that Mills was fighting for proper funding while Bush, the hypocrite, said that he didn’t want any child left behind but also didn’t want to pay for educational progress.
Mills was insistent that every child graduate—but only with stiff testing policies. This drew criticism from those who hate tests. But anyone who has spent any time with the commissioner knows that you don’t push him around. Nor does he make decisions based on who is on top at a particular time. He survived during the entire Pataki administration. On his watch, the state was successfully sued by a crusading interest group that insisted New York meet its obligations to fund learning for every child. His administration regularly issues state report cards that tell parents how their districts and schools are doing.
Of course, New York is now in a fiscal hole. Gov. David Paterson says that nothing is off the table. Who knows whether Mills, who has worked so hard to give every kid a chance, didn’t see the train coming. In announcing his decision, Mills was quoted as saying, “I didn’t want to get to a point where I’m tired and out of ideas and then say, ‘I’m leaving.’”
All I can say is that the guy has given his all and is owed a big vote of thanks from the people who probably have never even heard of him.
Alan S. Chartock is president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and an executive publisher at The Legislative Gazette.
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