Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy will step down this fall, ending a turbulent, three-year tenure in the First State.
He will be replaced by Steven Godowsky, a former superintendent with the New Castle County Vo-Tech District.
Gov. Jack Markell made the announcement Friday, saying Godowsky will take over some time in the fall on an interim basis. He will then face Senate confirmation in October.
Upon announcing Murphy’s resignation, Markell praised the secretary.
“We have made tremendous strides in the past few years, while laying the groundwork for more progress in our never-ending mission to ensure every Delaware child receives the best possible education,” Markell said in a statement. “I am thankful for Mark’s service to our state.”
The statement said Murphy was leaving to “pursue other opportunities,” but did not elaborate.
Murphy had come under fire in recent months from interest groups and legislators.
The state’s teacher’s union voted “no confidence” in Murphy in March. Soon after, in June, the union representing the state’s administrators released a survey showing that 89 percent of its members had little or no confidence in the then-secretary.
Murphy also fielded tough questions from legislators during a February hearing before the Joint finance commission, much of it linked to the way the department spent federal grant money earned through the Race to the Top initiative.
Murphy’s tenure wasn’t dogged by scandal, but rather a build-up of discontent—much of it based on policies that preceded Murphy in some form. He encouraged the roll out of tougher academic standards, intervened at low-performing schools, introduced a new statewide standardized test, and moved to strengthen teacher evaluation.
Murphy became Delaware’s Secretary of Education in 2012 after his predecessor, Lillian Lowery, became the education chief in neighboring Maryland. Prior to that, Murphy was executive director at Vision Network, a reform-oriented education non-profit in Delaware.
Under Murphy, the state made a number of substantial gains.
More students took and passed Advanced Placement exams, the state expanded its dual-language offerings, every college-ready student applied to higher-education in each of the past two years, graduation rates rose, and drop-out rates fell. The latter two numbers, however, were likely influenced by a change in administrative procedure, not entirely academic improvement, according to an investigation by NewsWorks/WHYY.
Despite those gains, Murphy encountered a backlash. Critics accused his administration of a top-down style that alienated legislators and wore on district-level employees. In addition, Murphy did not have a long history in Delaware before assuming the reins, a fact that seemed to rankle some in the First State.
Murphy also endured vocal criticism from supporters of a bill would have allowed parents to remove their children from state- and district-wide tests. Murphy’s administration and its allies mobilized to oppose the bill, but it cleared both Houses easily before being vetoed by Markell.
“I’m grateful to Governor Markell for this opportunity to serve the children of our state,” Murphy said in a press release.
He added, “To achieve the promise of great educational opportunities for all children in the coming years, continued courage and leadership will be needed by all.”
Frederika Jenner, president of the state’s teacher’s union, called Murphy’s resignation “an opportunity for a fresh start and a needed change of direction,” in an e-mail. But she also praised the departing secretary’s “energy and dedication.” She said she and Murphy “agreed in concept” on a number of issues, but often clashed over implementation.
State Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, called Murphy’s tenure “tumultuous.”
Earlier this year Townsend introduced a bill that would have changed the prerequisites for becoming Secretary of Education, such that someone with Murphy’s credentials would have been ineligible. Townsend was also a frequent critic of the Department of Education under Murphy’s leadership. He downplayed the idea, though, that outside pressure from interest groups and legislators prompted Murphy’s resignation, noting that many cabinet members step down in the wind-down phase of a gubernatorial administration. Governor Markell is set to leave office in early 2017.
“It’s very natural timing,” Townsend said.
Townsend, who serves on the Senate’s education committee, said Murphy’s time as the education chief “involved a whole lot of proposed change. Like Jenner, Townsend said he often agreed in principal with Murphy on issues like higher standards and better accountability.
His qualms with the Secretary hinged, rather, on delivery.
“There’s no doubt that there’s been a deficit of stakeholder engagement — real deep, true stakeholder engagement,” Townsend.
Critics often accused Murphy’s administration of an unwillingness to compromise. But where skeptics saw rigidity, allies saw Murphy as principled.
“He’s a fighter,” says Teri Quinn Gray, president of the State Board of Education.
Gray cited Murphy’s work on teacher and school accountability as well as his steadfast commitment to the Common Core State Standards, even as opposition mounted.
“There’s been tremendous pressure,” Gray said, “And he hung in there.”
Murphy’s replacement, Steven Godowsky, retired in 2011 after four decades as a Delaware teacher and administrator, according to an online biography. Godowsky began his teaching career in special education, according to the bio, was a principal for more than a decade, and served as superintendent of the New Castle County Vocational Technical District from 2003 to 2011.
Since then, Godowsky has worked as a program associate with the Delaware Academy for School Leadership, a research center run by the University of Delaware.
Gray does not anticipate a major change in priorities under Godowsky, and still believes redistricting in Wilmington and changes to teacher compensation will remain at the top of the agenda.
“I don’t think we need to change direction,” Gray said. “I think our course is strong.”