AUGUSTA – Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron, who has overseen school district consolidation, the introduction of a new standardized test and expansion of the student laptop program, said Wednesday she will resign.

Gendron, commissioner since March 2003, will leave her job at month’s end to become policy director for a 35-state group – the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium – which is competing for $350 million in federal money to develop a set of common standardized tests.

She was previously superintendent of schools in Windham.

“I’ve been privileged to be your commissioner,” Gendron told a group of superintendents, school board members and teachers’ union representatives Wednesday. “I’ve had an incredible experience.”

The Department of Education’s deputy commissioner, Angela Faherty, will take over as acting commissioner. Faherty had worked with Gendron as Windham’s assistant superintendent and previously as special education director in Portland schools.

Gendron is leaving as state education officials prepare Maine’s application for Race to the Top, a national competition among the states for education reform grants. Maine could be eligible for up to $75 million if its application – which includes a proposal to participate in the SMARTER consortium – is successful.

In her time as education commissioner, Gendron has undertaken a number of initiatives aimed at reining in school spending and introducing key education reforms. The changes she’s touted have often run into resistance in the Legislature and school districts.

The school district consolidation plan Gendron oversaw sought to merge Maine’s 290 school districts into 80 regional units to cut school administrative costs. But opposition to the plan in many rural areas thwarted dozens of school district mergers, leaving the state with 215 districts.

Some 95 districts could face penalties starting July 1 for voting against mandated mergers.

Last year, Gendron attempted to expand the Maine Learning Technology Initiative – the program that has equipped seventh- and eighth-grade students with laptops – into high schools.

But some legislators and school districts have opposed the plan, saying the cost of leasing Apple MacBooks for all high school students would be too steep. More than half of state high schools opted into the plan, while others pursued cheaper alternatives or opted out of the program.

Also last year, Gendron pushed lawmakers to adopt a new set of high school graduation requirements to allow students greater latitude in what they choose to study. The plan would have shifted Maine toward a standards-based education system, advancing students when they mastered course materials, rather than after spending a year studying them.

Legislators pared down the plan to one that allows students more choice in how they satisfy school requirements.

Portland School Superintendent James Morse called Gendron’s resignation “a major loss to the state of Maine.”

“She had a very strong vision of where she wanted to take education in the last eight years, and she worked very hard to implement that vision,” he said. “This is a commissioner who never caved.”

While lawmakers didn’t sign on to all her priorities, the reforms Gendron pushed have helped Maine line up with the Obama administration’s education agenda, said Rep. Patricia Sutherland, D-Chapman, House chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee.

“It was due to her persistence that we find ourselves eligible to apply for Race to the Top and in a posture to meet the federal guidelines coming down the road in terms of funding,” Sutherland said.

Gendron has overseen Maine’s education department during “a very difficult seven years in education,” said Chris Galgay, president of the Maine Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

During that time, Gendron involved the union in the decision-making process, Galgay said.

“We meet with her regularly,” he said. “I don’t think you can ask for much more than that.”

Recently, Gendron has earned a prominent national role in the education world.

She was one of 10 state education commissioners who made recommendations to Obama’s education secretary in the weeks following Obama’s 2008 election.

Gendron is currently president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nationwide network of state education commissioners. In that position, she’s played a national role in education policy.