For de Blasio’s chancellor, many names but a specific description
In terms of who he'd select to run the city's school system if he becomes mayor, Bill de Blasio hasn't gone so far as to name names.
But he has provided some indication what he's looking for, starting with experience: “You cannot get out of this rut and move the schools forward without an educator in leadership,” he said at a mayoral forum in the spring, drawing a deliberate contrast with the outsider model favored by Michael Bloomberg for much of his tenure.
De Blasio has also premised his education platform on changing the current administration's practices, criticizing Bloomberg for "favoring" charter schools and advertising his public school-parent credentials in lobbying for increased community participation in the formulation of policy.
Judging by those comments, and by the strong consensus in interviews conducted by Capital with local education-policy experts, the de Blasio administration's chancellor is likely to be someone who has worked in the city's education department, but who has taken issue with some of the basic tenets of Bloomberg's educational philosophy.
Some would-be chancellors have already begun jockeying for the position.
New York State Board of Regents member Kathleen Cashin fits de Blasio's description, and has been telling people in city and state school circles she wants the job.
D.O.E. deputy chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky, who has the seeming disadvantage of being part of the current administration, has taken union officials to lunch and made the case, according to one teachers' union official, that “he can be so much more helpful when there’s a changing of the guard."
Some education activists who have critical of the current administration's policies have been talking up Josh Starr, a former D.O.E. official and now head of Montgomery County, Maryland schools, since Starr bucked the reforms—new teacher evaluations, increased testing—that have made Bloomberg’s D.O.E. so controversial.
The campaigning for the job of chancellor, in large part because of the current political circumstances, has been unusually intense.
“De Blasio is the first Democratic mayor in twenty years, and there is more jockeying going on for schools chancellor than I have ever seen in transitions for a new mayor,” said Democratic consultant George Arzt, who was a press secretary in the Koch administration.
But even as some prospective chancellors have put the word out about their intentions directly or through surrogates, others have laid resolutely low.
Former city school official Carmen Farina, who held virtually every position from teacher to principal to superintendent to deputy chancellor, would in many ways seem to fit the bill for a de Blasio chancellor perfectly.
She is a longtime friend and informal adviser to de Blasio with whom he has consulted about education for a decade. She was the local District 15 superintendent when de Blasio was on the district’s school board and is expected to play a key role in picking the next chancellor, several sources said.
She denied having any interest in the job, and several sources close to her said the disinterest was genuine.
“I’m very happy at this stage of my life spending time with my grandchildren and traveling,” she told Capital. “I just got back from Germany and am planning on traveling again soon.”
But Farina's background and experience is helpful as a roadmap to explain the kind of chancellor de Blasio wants.
De Blasio said he wants a chancellor who wouldn’t need a waiver, as two of the last three chancellors—Joel Klein and Cathie Black—have required, to get around the standard prerequisite of an advanced degree in education and at least three years teaching experience.
Andres Alonso, a former D.O.E. official and head of Baltimore’s schools, was mentioned in multiple interviews as a leading contender for the chancellor post.
Alonso taught high school in Newark for a decade before being appointed deputy chancellor for teaching and learning at the D.O.E.
“He knows the system,” said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at N.Y.U. “He’s a thoughtful guy who would do a good job.”
Even his detractors, who say Alonso’s policies align too closely with the current regime's, acknowledge he’s a highly likely candidate.
The possibility that he'll be selected is strong enough to have inspired organized opposition: Leonie Haimson, director of Class Size Matters, an advocacy group opposed to Bloomberg’s policies, told Capital she is rallying supporters to oppose an Alonso candidacy.
“We need someone who is ready to do a 180-degree turn,” said Haimson.
Alonso has generally managed to retain amicable relations with New York education people on both sides of the fight between reformers and the unions, despite his record of closing failing schools and overseeing the opening of hundreds of charters in Baltimore. Alonso has said he stepped down to take care of his ailing parents.
He has so far kept a low profile in the New York chancellor stakes, and didn't comment for this article.
His perceived lack of interest in the job could actually end up being a plus for him, one expert said.
“The trick is to find people who have extraordinary credentials who don’t want the job, and talk them into it,” said Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor under Joel Klein.
Cashin, a former Brooklyn superintendent, could also be a politically expedient choice for de Blasio. She was a critic of Bloomberg and of former chancellor Joel Klein’s foundational idea of granting autonomy to principals and taking power away from superintendents and supervisors.
The New York Times called her “a triumph” in a 2006 profile in which Alonso credited Bloomberg and Klein, rather than Cashin, for improvements in her district. Cashin achieved those successes in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
Cashin did not respond to requests for comment from Capital, but a union source said she’s “showing up everywhere.”
Starr, a former New York special education teacher who served as a top official under Bloomberg before becoming superintendent of Stamford, Conn. school system and now the Montgomery county, Maryland public schools, has taken a very different stance toward education reform than his peers in New York. He rejected federal Race to the Top funding and called for a three-year moratorium on standardized testing. This is made Starr a hero in the eyes of the most stridently anti-Bloomberg activists who have deemed him the only acceptable choice for chancellor. Education historian Diane Ravitch is a fan.
A spokesman for the Montgomery county schools told Capital, “Dr. Starr is completely focused on his job. He has not been contacted by anyone from the de Blasio campaign.”
Alonso and Starr, who came up in a rundown of candidates compiled by Gotham Schools (with Cashin receiving a mention lower down), have distanced themselves from Bloomberg, but know how the largest public school system in the country operates.
Polakow-Suransky is the current number two at the D.O.E., under Dennis Walcott.
Referring to Polakow-Suransky, a school union source said he “has suddenly been so nice to us.”
The de Blasio campaign declined to comment for this article.
Front page photo by thanker212 via flickr.