December 10, 2012 - Joshua Starr, Superintendent, Montgomery County Schools, at Washington Post Live's Education forum. (Jeff Martin)

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and at least one other Education Department official urged New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and his team not to choose Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr as the city’s next schools chancellor, according to several people knowledgable about the selection process. It was an unusual move by the nation’s top education official and came in the wake of Starr’s vocal criticism of some of the Obama administration’s school reform policies.

Starr, who has led Montgomery County schools since July 2011, was a finalist in de Blasio’s two-month search for a superintendent to lead the nation’s largest school system, and people familiar with the search said he might have been offered the job had Carmen Farina, a 70-year-old veteran educator and longtime adviser, not come out of retirement for it. Starr was offered the No. 2 spot in the department, with the understanding that he would become chancellor within a few years, but he declined it, according to several people familiar with details of the search who spoke anonymously because of its political sensitivity.

De Blasio campaigned to reverse some of the school reform policies pursued under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), and Starr was seriously considered for the chancellor job because his views on school reform align closely with de Blasio’s. Starr also is familiar with New York schools, starting his career as a special education teacher there and later serving as the city’s director of school performance and accountability.

Some high-profile educators — including Starr, a Democrat — have criticized the Obama administration’s signature education program, Race to the Top, in which states and districts could win funding if they enacted Duncan-approved school reforms, including the expansion of charter schools and the evaluation of teachers by using student standardized test scores to determine a teacher’s “value” in the classroom.

Starr, who runs Maryland’s largest school district, just miles from the White House, became nationally known last year when he made a call for a three-year moratorium on high-stakes standardized testing, a central component of Duncan’s school reform policies. Starr said the country should “stop the insanity” of evaluating teachers according to student test scores, calling it a flawed method.

Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr makes a grimace while taking a class at Gaithersburg High School in 2012. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Duncan spoke negatively about Starr to de Blasio in a discussion about a number of candidates, people familiar with the discussions said. Duncan did not return phone calls seeking comment. Duncan spokesman Massie Ritsch, asked about Duncan’s conversations about the chancellorship and his objections to Starr, said he “declined to comment on private conversations between the mayor and secretary.”

“Secretary Duncan looks forward to working with Mayor de Blasio, Chancellor Farina and their team,” Ritsch said in a statement. “He wants to do whatever he can to support continued progress for students in New York City.”

Starr referred requests for comment to Montgomery County Schools spokesman Dana Tofig, who released a statement Tuesday from Starr indicating that he is dedicated to his current job.

“I appreciate that my name was among those mentioned for the Chancellor’s position in New York City,” Starr said in the statement. “I am very happy as the Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools and look forward to working with the staff and community to provide all students with the skills and knowledge that will prepare them to succeed in their future.”

Phil Kauffman, head of the Montgomery County Board of Education, said he did not want to comment on Starr’s candidacy for the position in New York.

Several people familiar with the New York selection process said that Jim Shelton, the assistant deputy secretary of education for innovation and improvement, also expressed to de Blasio’s team that he opposed Starr, although he was not speaking for the department or for Duncan. Shelton, asked about his comments, said in an e-mail that he did have conversations about the chancellor selection process, but Shelton did not answer specific questions relating to Starr.

“I have a number of decades old relationships in New York and when asked by friends and former colleagues I shared my personal impressions on the unique demands of the Chancellor role and at times specific candidates,” Shelton wrote. “I am excited to work with and support Carmen Farina, whose prior experience working in New York will surely be an advantage as she takes the helm of one of the country’s most complex and diverse school systems.”

De Blasio could not be reached for comment.

It is unclear whether Duncan’s views had any effect on the outcome of de Blasio’s search, but it is unusual for a U.S. education secretary to get involved in the selection of a district school superintendent.

But Duncan, seen by many as the most activist leader of the 35-year-old department, has done so before.

In January 2011, while D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) deliberated on who would succeed Michelle A. Rhee as D.C. schools chancellor, Duncan said publicly that he hoped Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s deputy, would get the job. She did.

Starr was one of three current or former schools leaders in the Baltimore-Washington region whose names surfaced in connection with the New York job, considered one of the premier education posts in the nation.

The others were Henderson and Andrés Alonso, former chief executive officer of the Baltimore City public school system, suggesting that the region is a hot spot for education reform and a training ground for education leaders.

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