help wanted

Mayor de Blasio wants New York City’s next schools chief to be like Fariña — but finding a replacement won’t be easy

PHOTO: Rob Bennett, mayoral photography office
Chancellor Fariña and Mayor de Blasio at Queens' P.S. 239.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a search for a new schools chief, he said he would look for someone very much like retiring schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. But as the search intensifies, that approach could pose a dilemma for the mayor, and make it harder to find someone well-suited to running and improving a system that sees itself as a model for school districts across the country.

On the one hand, the search for someone in Fariña’s mold would make the position ideal for a proven leader from within the department. But some observers said there is a dearth of internal options, and that few of Fariña’s deputies have the right background or public persona to take on the role.

At the same time, looking outside the education department could present its own challenges, especially if the job will emphasize carrying out an existing agenda rather than encourage making key changes to a system that has made some incremental gains in recent years but still faces big inequities.

“If you’re just going to keep the trains running on time that’s not going to be a huge incentive to run an education system, even if it’s New York City,” said Josh Starr, a former schools superintendent in Connecticut and Maryland who was considered for the job four years ago. “The best person is probably someone who’s been a lifer in the [education department] who they trust.”

The appeal of running America’s largest school system — which is by itself the size of a large city — might seem obvious. It represents a chance to shape education policy in the national spotlight under a mayor who has shown an interest in ambitious education programs, including the widely-praised launch of free prekindergarten for every family.

But candidates might also be dissuaded by an arrangement where most major policy initiatives in recent years have been handed down from City Hall, there is a relatively short time frame to implement changes, and a job description that suggests the next chancellor will be tasked with continuing the existing blueprint rather than making his or her own mark.

Meanwhile, the next chancellor will have to tackle difficult problems that the current administration has struggled to address: how to serve a growing number of homeless students, yawning achievement gaps, and persistent requests from charter schools for more space to operate. On top of that, whoever takes the job might have less funding to tackle those issues.

“We’re in for some really horrible budget times with the new tax law and there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Washington to cut budgets,” said Clara Hemphill, director of education policy and Insideschools at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

Still, whoever lands the job will inherit a school system that has enjoyed relative stability and progress: Test scores and graduation rates have incrementally climbed, and perhaps the mayor’s most ambitious education initiative — universal pre-K — has been widely hailed as a success. The relative calm means the next chancellor will be taking over a system many consider to be on the right track, though that could complicate efforts push through more ambitious — and potentially risky — changes.

In many ways, that legacy is exactly what de Blasio wanted from Fariña. In contrast with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who tried to systematically disrupt the system, Fariña was brought in to rebuild trust with educators and lend a steady hand. Some observers say she accomplished that mission — conducting legendary school visits to gauge the system’s health instead of leaning on reams of data, repairing the department’s relationship with the teachers union, and focusing on small-bore policies to encourage collaboration rather than competition between schools and educators.

But critics say the administration has never articulated a clear vision for improving the system as a whole, refused to tackle key equity issues like school segregation head on, and struggled with an expensive program to improve low-performing schools that has at best achieved mixed results — challenges a new chancellor must contend with.

Another legacy, some observers said, is that Fariña has not set up a natural successor. The New School’s Hemphill said that few of the department’s top deputies — including Dorita Gibson, Fariña’s second in command — have the visibility or political savvy to take on the job. And Josh Wallack, the deputy who helped execute the mayor’s signature pre-K expansion, does not meet de Blasio’s requirement that the chancellor must be an educator.

Finding an outsider to take the post could present challenges of its own. Not only is the chancellor’s salary is relatively low compared with some other school systems, which could give pause to the head of a higher-paying district, but also City Hall has engineered many of this administration’s high-profile education efforts.

Pedro Noguera, a UCLA professor who was reportedly floated for the role, said that the administration’s lack of a unifying vision for the system dissuaded him from considering the position.

“The items on their broad list – I have no objection to those,” he said in an interview. “But I don’t think they add up to the strategy that the system needs.” (Noguera said he was contacted by a third party about the job, but not directly by city officials.)

Still, many observers are optimistic about the mayor’s odds of fielding strong candidates. Fariña’s predecessor, Dennis Walcott, said running the nation’s largest school system will be difficult to resist — and there’s plenty of time for the next chancellor to make their mark.

“The person will be in charge of the largest municipal agency in the country,” he said. “The mayor is term limited, but he has a long four years in front of him.”

funding battle

Defiant, Cuomo invites ire resisting more New York State funding for schools

PHOTO: Philip Kamrass/Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo during his 2018 State of the State address.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo once again laid the responsibility of equitable school funding on local districts Monday, earning the nickname “Ebenezer Scrooge” from an advocacy group and kicking off what could be a contentious fight over education spending.

In a speech to the New York City Bar Association, Cuomo released his legislative priorities for the first 100 days of his new term as governor. He devoted a small portion of his comments to education, immediately sparking anger from his critics.

Cuomo directly placed responsibility for funding schools on local districts, saying the money is “not fairly distributed by them.” He pointed to a law he pushed to pass last year that required school districts to compile a report on how state funding is distributed among schools.

“The truth is the poorest schools do not receive any more funding than the richer schools from their local districts,” Cuomo said. “And that, my friend, is a critical injustice because the poorer schools have a great need that needs to be funded.

Then, Cuomo called the foundation aid program — designed to send extra dollars to high-needs school districts — and the 1993 lawsuit filed by New York City parents that laid the groundwork for foundation aid as “ghosts of the past” and part of “a political game.”

“The question is the local distribution of aid,” Cuomo said. “That’s what we have to focus on if we’re actually going to move from political pandering to progressive policy. It’s a question of math and theory, not philosophy and political posturing.”

Advocates say the state still owes the education department about $4 billion in foundation aid funding. The state halted funding under the formula during the recession. In 2017, Cuomo proposed changing it to a level that advocates described as a “repeal.” But Cuomo’s proposal could not overcome these advocates’ opposition and failed to pass.

“Cuomo is the Ebenezer Scrooge of public schools, starving children of much needed resources and state funding,” said Jasmine Gripper, legislative director for the union-backed advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, in a statement after Cuomo’s speech.

The problem, Gripper said, is that under Cuomo, the “state doesn’t provide enough funding to meet the growing needs that result from growing poverty and increased numbers of English language learners.”

A Chalkbeat analysis of New York City’s school funding data found there are funding disparities, which can amount to thousands of dollars per pupil, between schools, largely because of the Fair Student Funding Formula that sends more dollars to schools with hard-to-serve students, like those with disabilities or those from low-income families.

Some educators, including school principals, argue this formula does not go far enough to address school inequities — holes often filled by rich PTAs.

In the past, some scholars have questioned whether spending more money on schools necessarily results in sufficiently better outcomes for students. But a new review of the research suggests that additional money can play a role in student academic performance. But how that money is spent also likely matters.

The state Department of Education recently proposed a $2.1 billion increase in school funding, most of it tied to boosting foundation aid dollars. The state teachers union and Alliance for Quality Education lauded the Board of Regents’ proposal.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Teachers Federation, said it’s “time to take the politics out of state resources for education,” adding that low-income students have been “shortchanged for years” by the state formula.

As they have in the past, state education policymakers also endorsed a $4.9 billion, three-year phase-in of the money many argue is still owed under foundation aid.

“As we said when we released our proposal last week, all children should have access to a high-quality education regardless of their race, where they live or where they go to school,” said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “We look forward to working with the legislature and the executive to achieve this for all New York’s children.”

With more progressive Democrats in the Senate who campaigned on boosting education spending, Cuomo’s comments could signal a contentious budget fight ahead. Lawmakers must hash out a budget pan by April 1, and Cuomo’s budget proposal is expected in January.

Lawmakers don’t typically grant the full funding request from state policymakers. Last year, for example, legislators approved $1 billion in more funding for education, which was still more than half a billion dollars less than what the Board of Regents asked for.

Student Voice

Want to improve schools? Chicago students have messages for the city’s next mayor

Money for arts programs.

A Spanish teacher at the start of school — not midway through the semester.

More paper.

More teachers.

Free public transit for students — all year long.

Ask students to list the education priorities for Chicago’s next mayor, and many of them will start in one place: more funding for their schools.

But they have plenty of other ideas, too, on ways that City Hall could work to improve conditions on the ground at the district’s 600-plus schools, from free public transportation to and from school to solutions to teacher shortages.

In advance of a December public forum we hosted on the topic of the mayor’s race and the future of schools, Chalkbeat spent a day talking to the people affected most by the politics of education: Chicago students. To hear more of what they said, watch this video, filmed on location at the Mikva Challenge 2018 Project Soapbox competition and produced by Chalkbeat reporter Yana Kunichoff and Scrappers Film Group.