Richard Buery, architect of New York City’s massive pre-K expansion, is leaving City Hall

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, pictured during a school visit in 2014, announced this week that he is leaving his post.

Richard Buery, the deputy mayor who oversaw the de Blasio administration’s celebrated expansion of pre-kindergarten while also trying to ease tensions with the charter-school sector, is stepping down, the mayor said Thursday.

After initially turning down the job — which offered lower pay and greater public scrutiny than in his role as head of the Children’s Aid Society — Buery agreed in early 2014 to pilot the rapid buildout of the city’s free pre-K program, which was the centerpiece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first-term agenda. Within a year and a half, Buery had helped the city create about 50,000 additional pre-K seats while avoiding any major mishaps or controversies — a feat that helped the mayor glide to reelection this month.

“Never before have I had a job where I had 9 o’clock evening daily phone call with my team,” Buery said Thursday at a press conference where de Blasio announced several changes to his cabinet ahead of his second term. Despite its intensity, Buery called the job “an honor and a pleasure.”

Buery — who, until now, was the highest-ranking black official in City Hall and a rumored contender to be the next school’s chief — oversaw several other education initiatives beyond pre-K. Those included the creation of 215 “community schools,” which offer wellness and social services for students and their families; the expansion of after-school programs for middle-school students; and the establishment of a “children’s cabinet” to coordinate the efforts of dozens of city agencies that interact with young people.

More recently, he helped start a new city-run preschool program for 3-year-olds, modeled off the pre-K expansion — an idea the mayor attributed to Buery.

“Richard will be forever remembered as the person who started that initiative on its path,” de Blasio said Thursday.

Buery also played a crucial role as an intermediary between City Hall and the city’s charter-school sector, which have clashed since de Blasio took office promising to reign in the publicly funded but privately run schools. He was ideally positioned to play peacemaker: Before joining the de Blasio administration, he had helped found a Children’s Aid Society charter school, and he counted the leaders of the some of the city’s largest charter networks as friends.

He walked a fine line in his informal mediator role. For instance, he joined the mayor in opposing a state plan to allow more new charter schools to open, yet he sided with charters in their push to receive public money to pay for building rental.

“In Rich, we had a natural ally,” said Steven Wilson, chief executive officer of the Ascend charter network, in an email. “He understood our constraints and challenges, and was always willing to give voice to them with the Mayor.”

“If the administration doesn’t bring in someone similarly experienced, intelligent, and supportive,” he added, “it will be a loss to the sector.”

Yet, not everyone in the charter sector has had a warm relationship with Buery.

Dan Loeb, chairman of Success Academy charter schools — the network that has feuded most bitterly with the de Blasio administration — upbraided Buery in racially charged emails recently published by Politico New York. In a June email, Loeb called Buery “smug and satisfied” and an “apologist for the failing status quo” that leaves “poor black kids” with an inadequate education.

In an interview Thursday, Buery told Chalkbeat that he had tried to bridge the divide between members of the charter sector and City Hall, but the “really toxic, ugly politics that we have” sometimes got in the way.

“There’s still too much unnecessary negativity and ad hominem attacks and I don’t think it’s productive,” he said. “We’d do a lot better if we spent more time talking and less time yelling.”

Buery arrived at City Hall with a compelling backstory.

The son of immigrants from Panama, he grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, before graduating from Stuyvesant High School and enrolling in Harvard at age 16. He later attended Yale Law School, taught at an orphanage in Zimbabwe, and founded multiple youth-focused nonprofit groups.

Buery will remain in his post for the next few weeks while the administration seeks a replacement. In the interview with Chalkbeat, he shot down any suggestion that he might become the city’s next schools chancellor — “I never have aspired to that role” — but also said he did not have another job lined up. 

In his next role, he said, he is seeking a way to push back against the policies of President Donald Trump, which he called “the most un-American administration of my lifetime.”

“In one way it’s a terrible time, a challenging time for the country,” Buery said. “But in another way it’s an incredible opportunity in the country to stand up and articulate the values we believe in and stand up for those values. And I want to continue being a part of that.”

Monica Disare contributed reporting.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.