top of the food chain

New York City’s next schools chief: Alberto Carvalho, Miami’s longtime superintendent

PHOTO: Creative Commons / City Year
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho in 2013.

Update: Carvalho flip-flopped and turned down the job in dramatic fashion on Thursday. More here

Alberto Carvalho, the longtime superintendent of the Miami school system, will become New York City’s next schools chief, according to the mayor’s office.

Carvalho will replace schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who announced in December that she planned to step down as leader of the nation’s largest school system.

“Alberto Carvalho is a world-class educator with an unmatched track record of success,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday evening. “I am very confident that our extensive, national search has found New York City the best person to lead the nation’s largest school system into the future.”

The mayor had held off on making a public announcement in recent days due to the fatal school shooting in Florida this month, according to a person briefed by City Hall, and he had no public events listed on his schedule for Thursday. A Miami-Dade County Public Schools spokeswoman said on Wednesday evening that Carvalho had been offered the New York City job but had not yet accepted it.

Carvalho, who has run the Miami-Dade county school district since 2008, closely fits the mold that de Blasio had cast for a new schools chief: He comes from a diverse background, has been an educator his entire career, and is adept at selling his message.

Born in Portugal, Carvalho came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant and speaks multiple languages, including French and Spanish. He first landed in New York City, where he spent weeks scrubbing pots in greasy-spoon restaurants in Manhattan, but quickly made his way south, where he says he was homeless and slept in the back of a U-Haul truck while attending community college.

As a young science teacher at Miami Jackson Senior High in Miami, he was known for dressing in formal suits and ties (a practice he continues to this day), earning him the nickname “Mr. Armani.” Carvalho worked his way up the ladder, becoming an assistant principal and later an associate superintendent before taking the reins as superintendent of the country’s fourth-largest school district.

Carvalho ran into trouble, though, when emails surfaced that suggested he had a romantic relationship with a Miami Herald reporter covering the district. But since then, Carvalho has managed to largely avoid controversy, racking up accolades and awards and growing into a popular political leader.

“He’s reached a ceiling here,” said Joe Gebara, the immediate-past president of the Miami-Dade County PTA.  

The district was virtually bankrupt and had just ousted its previous leader, former New York City chancellor Rudy Crew, when Carvalho took over. Since then, he has dramatically shrunk central spending, built budget reserves, and won the trust of voters in Miami, who approved a $1.2 billion bond to fix up school buildings and pay for better technology.

Carvalho has been named superintendent of the year and helped the district win the Broad Prize for Urban Education. The district’s graduation rate is at an all-time high of about 80 percent, and it has pursued initiatives that echo de Blasio priorities, such as providing more Advanced Placement classes, especially for students of color.

“Who wouldn’t want Mr. Carvalho? He has done an amazing job here in 10 years,” said Lawrence Feldman, a longtime Miami-Dade school board member.

He also spearheaded an effort to eliminate out-of-school suspensions, similar to the push in New York City under de Blasio. He has railed against standardized testing, leading an effort to cut back on district-mandated exams. His philosophy for turning around struggling schools also fits well with de Blasio’s. In Miami-Dade, Carvalho pushed out many under-performing principals and established an office to support needy schools with instructional and behavior coaches.

But Carvalho is not without his critics, and has lately faced growing pushback from his own board, which in the past has been largely pliant. The board has called for an audit of the bond spending, along with regular updates about where the money is going, and there has been friction over whether the district should challenge a new state law that is favorable to charter schools. Advocates question whether students are showing up to alternative school sites when they’re suspended, and whether the education provided there is adequate.

Politically skilled, Carvalho’s name has often been floated for top jobs in education and beyond. He was rumored to be considered by Hillary Clinton for a possible U.S. Education Department job, and recently weighed a run for Congress.

But his out-front leadership style could make his transition to New York City difficult, where de Blasio has appeared to be looking for someone who will run with the agenda already in place.

The Miami-Dade schools board has called an emergency meeting for Thursday morning to discuss “the stability of the executive management leadership.”

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.

First Person

I covered Alberto Carvalho in Miami. Here’s why I’m not surprised he snubbed New York City.

Cavalho talks to Miami's school board chair during a break in the stunning meeting Thursday.

To kick off each school year, Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho gathers the district’s principals and his top education officials for a dramatic motivational show.

With slick visuals, live student performances, and moody stage lighting, Carvalho lays out his vision for the year ahead in an event that feels part TED Talk, part Broadway production. The yearly spectacle is an example of Carvalho in his element: In the spotlight, building excitement, and confidently selling his message — in multiple languages.

This week, Carvalho’s over-the-top flair was broadcast for all of New York City to experience. And after spending years reporting on Carvalho and the Miami-Dade County school system, I can’t say I was surprised by the marathon board meeting or his eventual snub of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

I was more shocked that he had seriously considered leaving in the first place.

Those outside of Florida don’t realize how good Carvalho has it in his adopted hometown, and how much he would be giving up if he left. After Carvalho finally made his big reveal, an education insider there told me: “Here in Miami, he is the king.”

Hyperbole, maybe. But that sentiment was certainly on display as students, business leaders, and the school board begged Carvalho — for hours, on live television — to stay.

In his almost three decades working in South Florida’s political ecosystem, and the country’s fourth-largest school district, Carvalho has masterfully cultivated political popularity and power. Carvalho reports to Miami’s elected school board, but he has deftly handled his relationship with its members for most of his tenure so that they almost always approve his agenda unanimously. When he was rumored to be a contender to lead Los Angeles schools — the second-largest district in the country — I watched the board prematurely open his contract and give him a raise.

That unity has eroded a bit after the last election, which ushered in some more independent members, and perhaps pushed Carvalho to flirt with decamping for New York City. Still, as the theatrics came to a climax on Thursday, his board hastily called for a symbolic vote of confidence in Carvalho. Every official present voted in favor.

On television, the vote looked strange. In Miami, it probably seemed normal.

In New York City, by contrast, the star superintendent would have had to start building that personal and political following from scratch — and play second fiddle to a mayor with his own national ambitions. Politico Florida pointed out on Friday that Carvalho would have to work with a chief of staff picked by the mayor. That was never going to sit well with Carvalho, who is used to being completely in command. “Mayoral control” is a very different thing.

In his brief introduction to New York City, Carvalho was already under a kind of scrutiny he rarely receives back home. As the theatrics unfolded, the media were quick to comment on Carvalho’s showmanship — and the criticism only grew sharper as the day continued.

“If Carvalho had taken the job he would have been chewed up by an NYC press corps that spits out pompous self promoters like phlegm,” one City Hall reporter tweeted.

In New York, the narrative he has built around the climb of Miami-Dade schools, and his own leadership, was likely to meet a far more skeptical audience. Already, there are cracks that could be easily pried open: his plan to eliminate out-of-school suspensions seems to have fallen short of his lofty promises, for example. And contrary to claims that achievement gaps closed substantially under Carvalho’s watch, wide disparities by students’ race and economic status persisted — in some cases shrinking, others growing, and still others holding steady.

In New York, when it finally became apparent he was breaking up with the city before even beginning his relationship here, jaws dropped and Carvalho’s future job prospects were declared dead. While it’s true that Thursday’s spectacle could be an albatross if Carvalho sets his sights elsewhere, it’s not clear to me that he’ll want to.

In Miami, Thursday’s decision branded him a hero who followed his heart and picked his longtime community over prestige. It’s easy to see how that would could play well in any bid for a higher position within the community that lobbied hard to keep him.

As a Florida native who has transplanted here, I know it’s hard for New Yorkers to accept that Carvalho could be truly happy to reign over the Sunshine State. But I’d like to make a shameless plug for my birthplace and all its wacky beauty.

It’s been years since Florida surpassed New York to become the third-most populous state in the country, and its national clout is real. And Miami itself is the kind of place that gets under your skin. Have you guys tried cafecito? (While we’re on it, where can I find some of that sugary, highly caffeinated Cuban coffee in Manhattan? I’m desperate!)

Maybe I’m just projecting here, but it feels sincere when Carvalho professes his love for the place, as he is wont to do on Twitter. After commuting in a nor’easter today, I can’t say I blame him.

the wood

The big loser in the Carvalho chaos, according to New York City papers: Bill de Blasio

It’s not every day that education news makes the cover of New York City’s local papers.

But that’s what happened today, the morning after Miami’s star superintendent shocked the city — and country — by turning down the schools chancellor job on live TV. Read all our coverage.

The New York Daily News and New York Post both used their legendary front pages to process the surprising news, with covers that mock Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The Post’s front page is less nuanced. It shows de Blasio in a bridal gown, sitting dejected on an altar. “Jilted!” the main headline reads.

The Daily News cover features a chastened de Blasio at a chalkboard — emblazoned with Carvalho’s winning grin — writing the words “I will not get ahead of myself” repeatedly. The implication is that the mayor botched the chancellor search by letting news of Carvalho’s selection reach the public before Carvalho was ready to commit — although the Miami superintendent said himself on Thursday that he had agreed to take the job.

Some New Yorkers stood up for the mayor on social media, accusing the papers of being ungenerous. Here’s one reaction on Twitter to the Daily News cover:

The Daily News offered a more sympathetic take in an editorial cartoon by Bill Bramhall, which shows de Blasio being burned by an exploded torpedo named Carvalho. The suggestion is that Carvalho was the destructive force on Thursday, not the mayor — and that de Blasio is suffering as a result, but presumably protected others around him, including the 1.1 million children who attend city schools, from extensive damage.