Photo by tbridge on Flickr.

This week the Gray transition team announced its picks for Deputy Mayor for Education, De’Shawn Wright, and State Superintendent of Education, Hosanna Mahaley.

These selections round out the District’s education policy team, along with Kaya Henderson, whom Gray plans to keep as Interim Chancellor for at least the short term. These picks show that the incoming mayor is serious about education reform.

The three of them make an amazing team with strong resumes and great promise. Both Wright and Mahaley have worked closely with mayors on education reform (with Cory Booker in Newark and Richard M. Daley in Chicago, respectively). They both have experience channeling private philanthropy to urban education.

But it won’t be an easy road for any of these appointees.

Henderson will face the twin tests of working within the new Mayor’s collaborative style and advancing a reform agenda with a more confrontational union president, Nathan Saunders. With a contract already ratified, she should have some breathing room on the major union issues, but budget pressure will force hard choices over the coming year.

The Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) position is one that remains to be defined under a new administration. We’ve questioned the purpose of a DME when you already have strong leaders in the state and local education agencies appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the Mayor, but there are two ways in which a DME in the Gray Administration can be effective.

One is substantive, to advance the Mayor’s early childhood and post-secondary education plans. The other is procedural, to keep both the Chancellor and the State Superintendent on message with the Mayor’s priorities and prevent political trainwrecks like the one we saw this past year.

The DME can also make urbanists happy by helping the Mayor harmonize public school facilities policies so that all kids in the city can walk or have short commutes to modern, high quality public schools.

Specifically, Wright could help ensure that critical decisions about DCPS school closures, charter school construction, and school facilities modernization all serve the common good, not just serve DCPS at the expense of charters or serve business interests at the expense of families.

School density should follow neighborhood density and magnet programs should be centrally located near transit nodes. Making this happen will require coordination among several city agencies.

State Superintendent is a critical position for the future of DC’s education landscape. The person in this role has to manage the District’s $75 million Race to the Top grant, win and manage new federal grants, build out the city’s education data infrastructure, administer school feeding programs, and write regulations on critical matters such as curriculum, standardized testing, and teacher certification that affect both DPCS and the public charter schools.

Hosanna Mahaley is an inspired pick because she brings fundraising experience and strong substantive background in education. She has been building a long resume, having earned a teaching certificate in California, an executive MBA at Northwestern, and served on the boards of the National Association of Charter School Authorizors, of which DC’s Public Charter School Board is a key member, and Education Sector, a respected education policy think tank.

Her most important role has been at the Chicago Public Schools, a system about nine times the size of DCPS, where she oversaw an effort by the city school district to build out 100 new schools with various charter or charter-like governance arrangements. This suits her well for the District, which also must seek ways to improve both the traditional and charter public school sectors simultaneously.

There are several things Mahaley can do to be successful. First, while private fundraising is important, securing federal money is paramount for a state superintendent. It doesn’t hurt that her former boss is now the U.S. Secretary of Education, but OSSE will have to be on top of its game if DC will continue to win funds that are awarded competitively instead of by formula.

Second, there needs to be a keen focus on data infrastructure. In 2007, DC won a $5.7 million federal grant to develop a data warehouse, but with the grant about to end in 2011, there hasn’t been much public evidence of progress. The state superintendent’s office selected a vendor and then canceled the contract in midstream, and a replacement has still not been selected.

So far, DCPS has led the way in using education data to measure teacher performance, but OSSE could provide leadership needed to accelerate the progress of performance measurement for charter schools and DCPS schools on equally rigorous terms. Having spent the last year and a half at Wireless Generation, a firm that provides consulting and software services to school districts, Mahaley should be prepared for this challenge.

Third, the charter sector and traditional public schools need a referee who can ensure that both sectors get the tools they need to compete fairly, succeed, cooperate and learn from each other.

Let’s hope that the new education policy team works well together and carries out the Mayor-elect’s promises for education reform. The leadership team represents a promising start.

Steven Glazerman is an economist who studies education policy and specializes in teacher labor markets. He has lived in the DC area off and on since 1987 and settled in the U Street neighborhood in 2001. He is a Senior Fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, but any of his views expressed here are his own and do not represent Mathematica.