Former State Education Commissioner Richard Mills

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017 at 2:42 am by

Former State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills died last week while hiking in the Adirondacks with a friend. He was 73 years old.

Here is the obituary which appeared in the Albany Times Union.

Former Deputy Education Commissioner James Kadamus recounted Mills’ accomplishments and legacy as Commissioner in a Times Union column.

While working for Governor Mario Cuomo in the early 1990s, I heard him tell a group of state legislators that he felt ideas from the State Education Department did not get traction because it was not a gubernatorial agency. Becoming Commissioner a year after the first Governor Cuomo left office, Richard Mills demonstrated how the position could be exercised to achieve adoption of a sweeping range of major initiatives. He did so without the benefit of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid as was used to fuel the most recent wave of reforms.

Here is what we wrote about Commissioner Mills in our monthly newsletter after he announced plans to step down in November 2008:

Commissioner Mills to Step Down
Commissioner Richard Mills’ imminent departure had been rumored, off and on, for years.  The announcement finally came on the Friday before Election Day.  The Board of Regents hopes to have a successor in place by the end of the school year.

Meeting with his advisory group from the Council, Commissioner Mills stressed the importance of avoiding the need for an acting leader, fearing stagnation with any interregnum.  He also said it seems a good time to move on – a series of forthcoming consultant reports will help the Regents and new Commissioner chart new directions for the State Education Department, but those directions are still open to adjustment, to accommodate a new leader’s perspectives.

The position of New York State Commissioner of Education is one of the toughest of all jobs.  New York is a diverse, complex, and politically fractious state.  State funding for the Department has been cut so far that it risks becoming a wholly-owned a subsidiary of the federal government.  On one hand, the position’s scope is broader than similarly titled positions in other states, encompassing all education from preschool to graduate school, plus libraries, museums, public broadcasting, and professional regulation.  On the other, the position’s political leverage is undermined by an arcane, archaic selection process that denies the occupant the status of either being a Governor’s choice or the stature of direct election by the voters, as is common elsewhere.  New York’s Commissioner is appointed by the Board of Regents, who are themselves are elected by the State Legislature, a process unused in any other state and that predates New York’s ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Commissioner Mills demonstrated how to make the position work and lasted longer in it than most of his predecessors.

During his service, New York won recognition as a leader in standards-based reform, perennially ranking at or near the top in policy and performance comparisons compiled by Education Week.  Schools made progress in closing achievement gaps.  The state enacted comprehensive School Aid reform.  Expectations for high school graduation were raised. Standards for teachers and school leaders were revised.  No Child Left Behind mandates were satisfied with better tests than most other states conceived.

Superintendents have had disputes with the Commissioner over how best to enact shared aspirations into statewide policies.  Sometimes he seemed to over-rely on a “publish and punish” strategy of releasing lists of alleged poor performers.  There were debacles with the implementation of two Regents Exams.  The prolonged struggles of the Roosevelt school district raised questions about SED’s capacity to intervene effectively in even just one school system.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, “A reasonable man adapts himself to his environment. An unreasonable man persists in attempting to adapt his environment to suit himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

At times, Council members found Commissioner Mills unreasonable.  But he never stopped engaging with superintendents or the Council.  His impact on New York’s schools has been deep and enduring.  Most fundamentally, tremendous energy was unleashed as schools embraced the idea behind standards-based reform – “all means all” – all children are owed the promise of an education that honestly prepares them for the demands of adult life – and then embarked to deliver on that promise.

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