Iris Chen to helm school system’s private fundraising arm

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Iris Chen was tapped as the city’s new executive director of the Fund for Public Schools. (LinkedIn)

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has picked Iris Chen to be her top private fundraiser at the Department of Education, a job that played an outsized role under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Chen takes over as executive director of the Fund for Public Schools, an office that serves as a conduit for philanthropies, corporations and individuals who want to donate money to Department of Education initiatives. The job has been vacant since her predecessor, Julia Bator, departed in March after three years.

The fundraising arm was established in 1982, but has seen a resurgence after Bloomberg and former Chancellor Joel Klein took control of the school system. Since then, the office has raised nearly $400 million, including a record $47.7 million in 2013, a spokesperson said.

The private money is used to fund dozens of initiatives each year, from the much-touted Summer Quest program, to family reading nights, to an early childhood center in Brownsville. Under Bloomberg, the funds have also been used to support the administration’s more controversial policies, like a teacher evaluation pilot and the creation of 150 small school high schools with a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

An open question is whether Mayor Bill de Blasio and Fariña will rely as heavily on private donors to promote their education priorities, which include the rapid expansion of prekindergarten and after school programs. Bloomberg, a billionaire, occasionally donated money to the fund through his personal philanthropy, while Klein brought on Caroline Kennedy to kickstart fundraising during the administration’s early years.

De Blasio has scrutinized the role that private fundraising plays in some charter schools, at one point proposing to charge rent to the ones that bring in the most donations. He later backed off the proposal in response to political pressure and, subsequently, a state law that outright banned it.

The fund does not say where all of its money comes from and faced criticism over the transparency issue. State lawmakers have also scrutinized whether the organization should continue to be exempt from financial disclosure laws that most nonprofits are required to follow.

Under Chen, the fund will promote pre-K and after-school, as well as the Common Core learning standards and greater access to libraries and arts programming, according to a press release announcing Chen’s appointment.

Chen previously worked two stints as an executive at Teach for America, first heading the nonprofit’s New York office and, most recently, helping with a startup aimed at developing young leaders. In between, from 2007 to 2013, Chen was CEO and President of the I Have a Dream Foundation, a national organization that seeks to tackle barriers that stand between disadvantaged students and college.

Chen started out as an elementary school teacher at P.S. 307 in Brooklyn, where she taught for three years.

“Iris’s roots as an educator and her focus on communication and collaboration will allow her to work effectively with educators and families,” Fariña said in a statement.


weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”