Pa. Education Secretary Rivera announces departure while schools scramble for fall plans

    Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Pedro Rivera.
    Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Pedro Rivera is the only member of the charter appeals board whose term has not expired.

    This developing story will be updated.

    On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera announced that he’s resigning his post to become president of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster.

    The turnover comes as public schools across the state scramble to finalize fall reopening plans amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. The news was first reported by the Associated Press. Rivera will remain in his current position until October, the AP confirmed.

    The college welcomed Rivera in a statement on Tuesday. 

    “The Board of Trustees is extremely excited to announce and welcome Pedro Rivera as the next President of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology,” said Maryann Marotta, chair of the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology Board of Trustees and Vice President of Marotta/Main Architects. “Secretary Rivera is a demonstrable leader with nationally recognized experience to lead the College through these very challenging times for higher education. His experience in education, leadership, and governmental policy align with the needs of the institution, and his strength and drive will serve to advance the mission of the College throughout the Commonwealth, impacting the lives of economically and socially underserved students and their families for generations.”

    Wolf announced Tuesday that he planned to appoint Rivera’s deputy secretary of higher education, Noe Ortega, to serve as the next education secretary. Ortega’s nomination must be confirmed with a two-thirds vote by the state Senate.

    Education officials and advocates expressed surprise at Rivera’s departure, given the enormity of the challenges facing Pennsylvania’s K-12 schools and post-secondary institutions.

    School administrators are facing a staggeringly expensive year as they try to retrofit facilities and stockpile protective equipment and technology. At the same time, pandemic-related job losses are expected to decimate local tax revenues for school districts, and to deplete tuition payments to colleges and universities.

    “I don’t envy the Wolf administration being in a position of having to change their Secretary of Education in midst of the worst crisis facing public education in modern history,” Donna Cooper, a longtime public education advocate who served in former Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration, said. “I don’t envy them at all.”

    Carolyn Dumaresq, an acting secretary of education under former Gov. Tom Corbett, was confident that Rivera would take steps to smooth out the transition.

    “I’m sure he’s had backup plans and people in place [to succeed him],” Dumaresq said. “He wouldn’t leave without [that.] He’s a great guy and I wish him all the best.”

    Appointed to his position in 2015, Rivera was at the helm of the Department of Education when Pennsylvania adopted a new, landmark school funding formula that distributes a greater share of state aid to schools serving needy students. He also led the agency as it overhauled the state’s school accountability standards to bring them in line with the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind.

    Rivera has also worked with lawmakers on an effort to change the state’s methods for evaluating teachers, and with the state Board of Education to modernize the state’s decade-old science education standards.

    Hazleton Area School District Superintendent Brian T. Uplinger said Rivera was an asset to the state’s education system.

    Rivera visited Uplinger’s district last year, meeting with the administration about several topics.

    “We’re going to miss him,” Uplinger said, praising Rivera’s openness and willingness to take questions.

    Cooper commended Rivera for “rebuilding relationships” with state’s 500 public school districts, which suffered funding cuts under Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration.

    But she said his leadership stumbled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Since the Department of Education cleared schools to open their doors on July 1, the state has largely left it up to school leaders to decide how and when to welcome students back to campuses. That’s led to mounting criticism from school leaders, who have called on the state to provide them with clearer guidance on how to keep students and staff safe.

    “People want strong leadership right now,” Cooper said. “And it was hard for PDE to provide that.”

    Capital-Star Correspondent Patrick Abdalla contributed to this story.

    Cassie Miller
    A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry. Miller has an extensive background in magazine writing, editing and design. She is a graduate of Penn State University where she served as the campus newspaper’s photo editor. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in professional journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to her role at the Capital-Star, Miller enjoys working on her independent zines, Dead Air and Infrared.
    Elizabeth Hardison
    Elizabeth Hardison covers the state Senate, as well as education and criminal justice issues, for the Capital-Star. You can reach her at [email protected], on Twitter @ElizHardison, or by phone at 607-437-3548.