Weighing in

Advocates: Four traits we want in NYC’s next schools chief — and four candidates we don’t want

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña is preparing to step down in the coming weeks.

With a transition in New York City’s education leadership imminent, insiders are jockeying to make sure their perspectives are taken into account.

We received a letter from two advocates who say they want the city’s next chancellor to be a lot like the outgoing one, Carmen Fariña. David Kirkland, the executive director of NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and Natasha Capers, the coordinator of the Coalition for Educational Justice, say they want Mayor Bill de Blasio to pick someone who, like Fariña, would bring experience, commitment, a belief in collaboration, and a focus on equity.

But they’re asking for more: Capers, a harsh critic of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education agenda who was often allied with the education department under Fariña, has more recently pushed for more transparency from the de Blasio administration and called for the city to do more to encourage culturally responsive teaching. The letter says the next chancellor needs to tackle this issue more than Fariña has. (The letter does not mention racial segregation, an issue that Kirkland focuses on as a member of the city’s new school diversity advisory group and leader of a resource center meant to support activists, officials, and school administrators focused on school integration.)

Capers and Kirkland also draw a line in the sand for the kind of chancellor they couldn’t support: one with any association with the Broad Academy, a leadership program for school administrators with ties to the school reform movement that Bloomberg’s education policies exemplified.

The full letter is below. The chancellor search could be heading into its final stretch, if Fariña’s farewell tour is any indication — or not. City Hall has been tight-lipped about where the search to replace her stands.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio chose Carmen Fariña as Chancellor four years ago, parents and advocates were excited to have an experienced educator and former public school parent in leadership. This has meant an increased focus on teaching and learning, stronger supports for struggling schools, and an emphasis on educating the whole child through arts, physical education, language and more.

The choice of Chancellor Fariña’s successor is crucial. De Blasio represents a marked departure from the Bloomberg market-based approach to schooling that used testing to grade and punish schools, and saw parents and communities as nuisances. De Blasio has prioritized reforms that support quality teaching and whole child development. This includes universal full-day pre-K, community schools with social and emotional supports for students, arts and physical education, and moving from punitive to positive discipline policies. But to date Mayor de Blasio’s reforms have not gone far enough. The success or failure of his next Chancellor will determine the Mayor’s legacy and whether or not his reforms, beyond pre-K, survive his tenure.

Four key traits are necessary for the next Chancellor: Commitment, Experience, Equity, and Collaboration.

Commitment: Chancellor Fariña has demonstrated a strong commitment to public education as a public good. The next Chancellor must also be deeply committed to keeping public schools public and accessible to all students, and not undermining access through the illusion of choice and privatization.

Experience: As was the case with Chancellor Fariña, the next Chancellor must be an experienced educator with a track record of leading a large urban school districts, and have specific experience and knowledge of the New York City school system—which is by far the nation’s largest and most complex.

Equity: The next Chancellor must be driven by a deep commitment to eliminate the opportunity gap based on race, ethnicity, gender, language and ability, and improve education for historically oppressed populations. This includes a commitment to culturally responsive education which to date the de Blasio administration has failed to adequately embrace.

Collaboration: The Chancellor should have a track record of working in partnership with parents, students, educators and community organizations; building and sustaining partnerships between the district and the community; and addressing problems by bringing multiple stakeholders together to devise solutions. The Mayor’s critically important signature reform of Renewal Schools and community schools has suffered as the Department of Education has struggled with genuine collaboration among families, schools, district staff, central DOE, and community partners, and at providing the efficient supports and leadership needed to help these schools succeed.

To meet these criteria, the Mayor will have to stay away from the crew of Broad-trained administrators who represent the brand of “education reform” that de Blasio ran against. Those include John White, Superintendent of Louisiana; Paymon Rouhanifard, Superintendent of Camden, NJ; Kaya Henderson, former Chancellor of DC Public Schools; and Jaime Aquino, a former Deputy Superintendent in Los Angeles who was involved with a conflict-of-interest scandal regarding purchase of iPads.

De Blasio has moved in the right direction on education, but he has had neither the boldness nor the focus our families expect from the Mayor. He must be certain that the next Chancellor shares the vision of reform that is based on supporting students and providing equity, but the next Chancellor must also have the experience and commitment needed to navigate the complexity of our massive school system and the skills at collaborating with families and communities needed to succeed.

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.