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Rendell picks Lancaster superintendent as state education secretary

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

By Eleanor Chute, Post-Gazette Education Writer

At first, Lancaster School District Superintendent Vicki Phillips didn't want the job of state education secretary.

Vicki Philips

But Phillips, 44, who has a national and international reputation in school reform, finally said "yes," and Gov.-elect Ed Rendell announced his choice in Lancaster yesterday. The nomination must be confirmed by the state Senate.

This morning in Pittsburgh, Rendell is expected to announce his choice of Allen D. Biehler, a transportation consultant and long-time former executive of the Allegheny County Port Authority, as his nominee for secretary of transportation.

Phillips said she hadn't aspired to the state's top education job but found she couldn't turn it down.

"I have been vocal in this state for the last seven years about things I thought were going well and about things I had serious concerns about," she said. "You can't do that and be given an opportunity to help and walk away from that."

Since 1998, Phillips has headed the 11,500-student Lancaster district, where she is credited with raising test scores, introducing all-day kindergarten and raising $23 million in nonpublic funding, mostly from foundations, to bolster the schools' budget.

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"Anyone who doubts that we can make public education better -- even in our urban centers -- should look at Vicki Phillips' record of accomplishment," Rendell said in a prepared statement.

Rendell also named Donna Cooper, executive director of Good Schools Pennsylvania, as director of policy. When Rendell was Philadelphia mayor, Cooper was deputy mayor for policy and planning.

The nomination of Phillips was greeted with enthusiasm in the education community, including teacher unions which often felt left out of the loop with the Ridge-Schweiker administration.

"We are pleased that Gov.-elect Rendell kept his promise to name an experienced K-12 public school educator as his education secretary," said Patsy Tallarico, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Phillips said she is a strong believer in standards and assessments and accountability. "They're the cornerstone of any good improvement effort, locally or statewide," she said.

"I don't think we yet have imagined, created, established a strong enough support system for school districts who are struggling and who are grappling with the need to improve," she said.

She also believes early childhood education is vital and that Pennsylvania lags behind other states.

Phillips' roots are in rural Kentucky.

"I'm one of those kids who grew up essentially with no expectations set for me ," she said.

Although she was in the top 10 percent of her high school class, she said, "not one guidance counselor, one principal, one teacher, not anybody, said I should or could go to college. I came out of a particular elementary school that signaled to them poverty."

A friend dragged her to college entrance exams.

"That was luck. I don't want it to be luck for schoolchildren."

She went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees from Western Kentucky University and a doctorate from the University of Lincoln in England

She taught from 1981 to 1985 in Kentucky, then became a consultant for the state Bureau of Instruction. From 1991 to 1993, she served as chief executive assistant to Kentucky's commissioner of education.

During her tenure, Phillips recruited John Thompson, now superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, to become deputy commissioner for learning and support services in Kentucky.

Thompson said, "I think Vicki is a breath of fresh air because she knows education in and out. She knows the political side of the house. She can talk the talk and walk the walk."

In the mid-90s, Phillips was deputy director/chief of staff for a program of the national Center on Education and the Economy in Washington, D.C., and was a liaison to the Pittsburgh schools.

Before going to Lancaster, her work was in Philadelphia -- Rendell's home base -- where she was executive director of Children Achieving Challenge and director of the Greater Philadelphia First Partnership for Reform, both of which worked to improve public education in Philadelphia.

Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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