The political education of Carmen Fariña

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Carmen Fariña. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
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Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña's transition from education functionary to out-front political figure hit a particularly rough patch in the middle of last week's snowstorm.

At a press conference with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who offered an impassioned, earnest defense of the administration's decision to keep city schools open in the face of criticism from parents and politicians, Fariña offered the following: "It's absolutely a beautiful day out there."

The tabloids skewered her.

In an interview Wednesday with Capital at Tweed, Fariña said she regretted the comment, but characterized it as a misstep not worthy of the attention it attracted.

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"I happen to be a very honest person and I obviously rue the day I ever said, 'beautiful,' but that's OK," Fariña said. "To me I think it comes with the territory. If I had been new to the city or to the job I think I would have been massacred. But people kind of knew me. I understand reporters have to do their job. I have to do my job. I don't take it personally."

Fariña's comments paint a picture of an educator, not a politician, a woman more concerned with systemic change than presentation. 

Still, taking on the very public job of chancellor—the mayor prevailed upon her to take it after she initially indicated that she wasn't interested—has required Fariña, at the age of 70, to make some significant personal adjustments.  

"I went to the supermarket the other day and left my groceries there and went home," she said, "Everyone had to give me an opinion on something. All of a sudden it's like I'm a different person."

When her grandson Charlie told her she had been called a "moron" in the newspapers, Fariña says she told him, "There's a solution to this. Abuela doesn't read the papers and she doesn't watch TV anymore."

"I don't take it personally," she said.

Fariña's ambivalence about politics seems to be part of what made her the most desirable chancellor candidate for her mentee, Bill de Blasio, who made the first leader of the school system in more than a decade who did not need a waiver from the state in order to serve. 

Fariña said she and de Blasio share a core belief that "educators can reform themselves, they can reform the system, versus reformers who don't know anything about education." 

She said she took the job because she and de Blasio believed that she would be uniquely positioned to implement change in the system quickly.

"For anyone else, the learning curve on this would be much too long," she said. 

Fariña's first six weeks in office have been relatively light on policy changes, or even specific proposals. She answered questions about substance with promises to improve communication, and to bring "joy" back into schools.

But she says the specifics are coming, and that reforms to the system's rules linking standardized test performance to grade promotion could be announced as early as next week. She also said changes to promotional policy should begin to help alleviate the anxiety surrounding state-mandated high-stakes tests.

Fariña said the department's lawyers are currently reviewing changes because they involve alterations to the existing chancellor's regulations

And she said that the pace of policy rollouts has been studied, not slow, because she is insisting that all changes be approved by a new principals' advisory board she has created to ensure that any reforms will directly help students.

"Nothing will just come out of my own head. I need principals to say, 'this is workable, this is doable.'"

She added, "Everything I'm doing, I'm saying, 'Does it affect the classroom.' If it doesn't, that's probably not going to be a priority." 

She said she's actually wary of making major changes too quickly.

"We have to be careful that when we make change we don't create chaos," she said. "What are we going to uproot? Most of the decisions we make will not be major differences but there are some that will be major."

Fariña said beyond changes to promotional policy, she and her advisory board are focusing on ways to cut down on paperwork for overburdened principals.

Fariña has already announced that principals will now have their email inboxes uncapped and will be able to read and answer email on smartphones, resolving an inconvenience for school leaders who gave Fariña a standing ovation at a recent meeting when the policy was announced last month.

"With the help of unions we expect to go and say this is what we're going to do," Fariña said, "a lot of this stuff is city-specific, not state-specific," meaning that she has the authority to change the paperwork structure. 

She also expects policy changes out of her middle school initiative. Fariña has visited over a dozen middle schools in the last six weeks, and is in the process of identifying excellent schools that other middle schools can partner with and learn best practices from.

She said the city's leading middle schools are generally large schools with smaller houses or academies within them, have sophisticated technology programs and are often partnered with community-based organizations or large corporate organizations like the Gates Foundation. 

Fariña suggested that middle school partnership would help end the controversial Bloomberg-era policy of closing failing schools.

"Say you have a struggling school," she said. "Instead of closing the school we will give them a year to observe these practices and see how they can change."

Fariña said updates on the middle school initiative will be announced early next week. 

While the de Blasio administration is yet to announce an official policy to charge charter schools rent, Fariña emphasized that she believes some charters have a lot to offer the department, as long as they serve student populations that are genuinely in need.

"You're not going to hear me say I don't believe in charters. I want them to raise the bar for us," she said, adding, "but I want to know that they are not exclusionary. I don't feel you should take in kids by lottery and then make sure they leave within the next two years. Some have a tremendously high rate of kids they send out." 

"If you are creating a private school within a public school system, don't say your scores are better because the reality is we're not comparing apples to apples," she said.

Fariña said Hellenic Charter School in Park Slope is a good example of a charter that has something to offer the public system, and has worked with the Explore Schools network in Central Brooklyn. 

She is meeting with the New York City Charter School Center and leaders from many charter schools and networks in a closed press meeting on Saturday. 

Reviewing her first weeks in office, Fariña said, "There's certainly the feeling that you've become powerful in a different way."

"As an educator you do the work, now the job changes a little because you have to persuade people to do the work," she said.