Before running the nation’s largest education system, David Banks had never been responsible for supervising more than a single school.
He had years of on-the-ground experience and often ticks off the jobs he held — safety agent, teacher, principal. He helped launch the Eagle Academy, a network of six district schools devoted to boys of color, ultimately running the foundation that supports them. When Eric Adams, a longtime friend, tapped Banks to be his schools chief, the incoming mayor said he didn’t seriously consider anyone else.
Adams, who often spoke on the campaign trail about his own experience with dyslexia, never staked out a detailed education agenda. At the event formally naming him chancellor, Banks spoke in broad strokes about a “fundamentally flawed” system and a sprawling bureaucracy that isn’t set up to serve vulnerable children. The question remained: What direction would this chancellor take the city’s roughly 1,600 schools?
In contrast with his early comments about transforming a broken system, Banks has narrowed his focus. He’s staked out a goal above all others: improving the city’s dismal literacy rates, particularly for Black and Latino children. He also wants to create a stronger path to the workforce by expanding students’ access to career-focused coursework and paid internships.
To Banks’ supporters, focusing on a couple key issues is more likely to yield results. Still, others say that the administration has struggled to define a clear vision for improving the system as a whole, as many schools aren’t part of his signature initiatives.
Meanwhile, a looming set of budget cuts threaten to overshadow Banks’ agenda, as more than $7 billion in one-time federal relief money is drying up and Adams has ordered up to $2 billion in cuts on top of that.
Banks may have to maneuver to maintain funding for his top priorities. And he’ll have to navigate steady drum beats from politicians and advocates who are pushing to save a range of programs that serve high-need children.
“They are going to need to make tough decisions,” said Mark Dunetz, president of New Visions for Public Schools, an organization that supports a network of city schools. The challenge, he added, will be to make those choices “based on evidence of effectiveness rather than the push and pull of politics.”
A ‘realist’ at the helm?
Two weeks into the school year, Banks took the stage at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, the mammoth auditorium packed with hundreds of department staff, union leaders, parents, and elected officials. With a slideshow at his back, and the mayor looking on, Banks was selling his vision — and in his element.
The “State of Our Schools” speech laid out his case for requiring all elementary schools to use one of three approved reading curriculums by next fall, ticking off statistics that show half the city’s students aren’t proficient in reading, figures that rise to about 60% for Black and Latino children.
“I’m really staking my reputation on reading,” Banks told Chalkbeat in a recent interview. “If you don’t get that right all these other things don’t really matter.”
Banks touted his other signature initiative, FutureReadyNYC, which helps 100 high schools offer more early college credit and paid work opportunities in education, technology, business, or health care. The effort will expand to 50 more schools next year, he said.
To Banks, zeroing in on those two issues is essential to make his mark. Given the system’s size and complexity, “if you don’t focus the entire operation on a couple of areas, it will be just rhetoric,” he told Chalkbeat.
Some observers agree the moment demands a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer, especially as schools are still digging out from under the pandemic and grappling with learning loss, mental health challenges, and alarming rates of chronic absenteeism.
When Banks took office, some educators wondered if he would pursue changes in the mold of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s divisive schools chief, Joel Klein. Klein sought to overhaul the district’s structure and moved to shutter large high schools and replace them with smaller ones like Eagle Academy. Banks tapped Dan Weisberg, Bloomberg’s school labor strategist who often sparred with the teachers union, to be his top deputy.
But observers said Banks has charted a less disruptive path, bringing the teachers union on board with his two biggest initiatives.
“Joel Klein said ‘I’m going to break the system so hard nobody is going to put it back together,’” said David Adams, the CEO of Urban Assembly, a network of about two dozen schools across the city. “I think being really strategic around where your energies are going to be put forth can be a more effective way of changing the system.”
Still, others said it’s difficult to discern Banks’ broader plan to improve schools across the system, a tension with Banks’ initial diagnosis that the system is “broken.”
This administration’s approach is “pretty small bore,” said Clara Hemphill, founder of the school review website InsideSchools. At this point in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure, he had already added tens of thousands of pre-K seats, part of what is widely seen as a successful universal prekindergarten program.
“Having 70,000 pre-K seats was a huge, huge accomplishment. I don’t see a big issue like that with Adams,” Hemphill said. The current administration also seemed to be reversing course in some areas, she added, including abandoning de Blasio’s goal of expanding the program to include all 3-year-olds.
Hemphill acknowledged that improving literacy rates would be a major accomplishment, but she worries the most popular curriculum the city has mandated is not the strongest choice. Plus, the city disbanded an existing literacy coaching program in favor of training from outside vendors and scrapped a program that focused on improving literacy in middle schools, a move Hemphill found baffling.
For their part, school leaders have had mixed reactions to Banks’ tenure so far. Some expected the schools chief, a New York City principal himself for 11 years, to give them more freedom to innovate — something Banks signaled was a possibility.
De Blasio favored top-down supervision of principals, and many school leaders complained of burdensome compliance mandates. Banks has taken a step further, giving superintendents the authority to mandate which curriculums schools can use based on a list of approved options.
“The system is still running the way it was under the last administration which is: Schools are problems to be fixed rather than systems to be supported,” said one Brooklyn high school principal who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There’s just a whole lot more people out there trying to micromanage schools from afar.”
Banks said he believed strongly in principal autonomy when he was a school leader. “I also am a realist,” he said, adding that not every principal thrives with more freedom.
“If they were, we would have much better results than we have,” he recently told reporters.
Banks strikes a middle ground
Beyond his two main initiatives, critics and supporters alike say Banks has earned a reputation for hearing out opposing viewpoints and finding ways to compromise.
“If the evidence is there, he moves. He’s not ideological,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, a strong supporter of Banks’ reading curriculum overhaul.
When Banks took office, he faced a key decision about whether many middle and high schools could resume screening students for top grades and test scores after pandemic-related disruptions to the admissions process.
The debate over how to proceed was charged, with some parents arguing that strong students should have access to accelerated learning opportunities at top schools. Others worried a return to the pre-pandemic norm would exacerbate segregation and contended that public schools should be open to all children.
Though Banks has bluntly suggested some students deserve to be in top schools more than others, he struck a middle path: Selective admissions would continue with key caveats. High schools may no longer consider state test scores, though they can still use students’ grades. For middle schools, he gave local superintendents the authority to determine how to use selective admissions. The result: far fewer screened middle school programs.
Jasmine Gripper, a frequent critic of the administration, said the approach is emblematic of Banks’ leadership style.
“The finesse of this administration has been their ability to take on hot button issues and produce a solution that neutralizes the opposition,” said Gripper, previously the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education and now a leader of the state’s Working Families Party. Banks “leaves everyone walking away feeling like they won something.”
Financial challenges could derail Banks’ plans
The biggest obstacle on Banks’ plate right now may be one that’s much harder to control.
A brewing storm of fiscal problems could derail some of Banks’ existing initiatives, threaten to consume his agenda with painful fights over budget reductions, and make it difficult to find money for new programs.
More than $7 billion in one-time federal money is running dry. Starting with the previous administration, some of it has been used on recurring costs, including social workers, expanded summer programming, and new seats for preschool students with disabilities who had been shut out of universal pre-K. The funding has also been used to keep school budgets steady despite significant enrollment declines, raising the possibility of painful cuts at individual schools.
As the federal funds evaporate, Adams has also ordered the city to cut 5% of its contribution to all city agencies, a move he said is needed in part to finance services for thousands of asylum-seeking families. The Education Department recently outlined plans to reduce spending by $547 million, and it may need to slash roughly $1.5 billion more if Adams follows through on future rounds of cuts.
Advocates have warned that it will be impossible to make cuts of that size without affecting key programs, and the first round of cuts has already prompted political pushback.
A new state law mandating the city reduce class sizes looms over these fiscal pressures: The Education Department will need to spend billions more in the coming years to comply, city and fiscal watchdogs project.
On top of that, Banks may have another fight on the horizon. As enrollment declines accelerated during the pandemic, the city now has nearly 200 schools with 200 children or fewer.
Banks has suggested that mergers or closures could be on the table, a process that often generates outcry from parents and elected officials with deep roots in school communities.
“That’s kind of a ticking time bomb,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “It’s just not going to be sustainable to maintain very small schools.”
Banks has offered few hints about how he plans to navigate the growing budget pressures, including what criteria he’s using to determine which programs survive. He said he’s “fighting like heck” to preserve funding for the literacy overhaul and career pathways initiative. Everything else is on the table.
“It’s gonna be a tough negotiating season,” Banks said.
Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org.