When the next mayor takes office on January 1, one of his first acts will likely be to choose a schools chancellor. His choice will send a strong message and a lasting impression about his vision for education in New York City.
Right now, Democrat Bill de Blasio appears to be the clear favorite in next month’s mayoral election. He hasn’t said anything about whom he’s considering for chancellor, but we know he wants to hire a career educator — and someone who will steer the city’s schools away from the way they’ve been run under Mayor Bloomberg.
Recent history shows that predicting a chancellor is a guessing game for those outside the inner circle: Three of the last four schools chiefs — Harold Levy, Joel Klein, and Cathie Black — were plucked from outside the world of education and came as a surprise to education observers at the time.
Still, as the leadership transition nears, names have started circulating about likely candidates to be de Blasio’s chancellor pick. Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who has stated repeatedly he intends to leave with the administration, seems to have taken himself out of the running.
We’ve sorted through the rumors and political jockeying to handicap several strong contenders.
Who he is: Alonso is the 56-year-old former CEO of Baltimore City Schools, who resigned in May on good terms after six years running that district. Under his leadership, Alonso cut the size of the department’s central office and reorganized resources to give principals more power over how to use school budgets. He also negotiated a teacher pay system that eliminated seniority steps and, for the first time, tied compensation to performance. Alonso closed more than two dozen schools due to low performance and doubled the size of the charter school sector, from 17 to 34 schools. Graduation and attendance rates spiked and suspension rates fell.
Alonso moved to Baltimore from New York City, where he served for three years as chief of staff in the Department of Education’s Division of Teaching and Learning under Carmen Farina. He replaced Farina in 2006 and headed the office for a year before departing. He started his career in Newark, where he taught special education for 12 years.
Why you might see him at Tweed: He has the experience of running an urban school district, and he did so without making any real enemies. Union leaders are fans, too: Both Michael Mulgrew and Randi Weingarten have talked up his management style as one reason Baltimore’s teacher evaluations work.
Alonso’s work earned him a national reputation well before his name was floated for the New York City vacancy, his former Baltimore colleagues said. “Whenever a recognizable, high-profile position became available, his name was always batted around,” Neil Duke, former chair of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners, said of rumors that regularly swirled around Alonso.
Another reason: The Cuban-born Alonso is a minority, a trait viewed as important in New York City where black and Hispanic students make up more than 70 percent of the population — and in a political landscape that stresses diversity among its public figures.
Why you might not: Alonso left Baltimore to take care of his ailing parents, something his friends and former colleagues said has remained a priority in his life. He also has a plum job as a professor at Harvard University that is surely lower-stress than running New York City’s schools.
What he says: No comment
What a supporter says: “He already knows New York. He’s proven himself to be an effective superintendent of Baltimore,” said Pedro Noguera, a professor at New York University. “I just think he would come in and be able to address some of the deep problems of the system pretty quickly.”
Who he is: Hughes is president of New Visions for Public Schools, an education nonprofit that has worked alongside the Department of Education to open schools, develop curriculum and provide professional development. More recently, New Visions become a school support network and charter school management organization. Under his 13-year leadership, New Visions has opened 6 charter schools and 99 district schools, including many of the small high schools that replaced large underperforming high schools shuttered during the Bloomberg administration. New Visions high schools are often credited in research that shows students from small high schools are more likely to graduate than similar students at other schools.
Hughes has also led the organization’s recent shift into the role of contracting with the city to provide direct support to schools. New Visions currently has contracts with 73 schools serving 40,000 students.
Hughes, an attorney, started his career at Advocates for Children where he represented parents in zoning disputes and student disciplinary hearings. He was also co-counsel on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, a landmark case that successfully challenged the state’s school funding system and awarded $5 billion in extra school aid to New York City.
Why you might see him at Tweed: In some ways, Hughes has been running a mini-New York City school district for more than a decade in his role at New Visions. His experience at New Visions spans three chancellors and multiple bureaucratic reorganizations that have taken place at the Department of Education, which supporters say has left him with institutional knowledge of how the school system works while retaining an outsider’s view.
Though New Visions’ ascent has benefitted directly as a result of controversial reforms taken up by the Bloomberg administration, Hughes has credibility with the mayor’s fiercest critics. Supporters say his role in the CFE lawsuit, where he represented the racial discrimination part of the case, gave him an intimate understanding of the complex state formulas that bring in fund city schools.
Why you might not: Despite his experience in working in public education, he lacks a credential that many of the candidates, including de Blasio, have said is important: He’s never taught in public schools. And his association with the Bloomberg administration could further taint his candidacy, especially for those who want to see a more complete break from that era.
What he says: No comment
What a supporter says: “He has the right background, he understands deeply the problems with equity. He has high standards and runs an excellent organization. He’s the perfect middle-of-the-road guy.”
Who she is: As Alonso’s predecessor as instructional chief at the Department of Education, Farina was considered one of the city’s most experienced educators to work for Joel Klein. With a career that spanned four decades, Farina was first an award-winning teacher whose inventive reading curriculum at P.S. 29 in Brooklyn was so popular that the Board of Education recruited her to expand it and train teachers on how to use it. Later, she served as principal of P.S. 6 in Manhattan, a highly-selective school so popular that Farina once had to take its phone of the hook to stop parents from calling about open seats. In 2002, she was credited with turning around District 15 in Brooklyn after her predecessor left a trail of financial mismanagement and distrust.
Three years later, Farina was picked by Mayor Bloomberg to head one of the city’s 10 regional districts that formed out of his first reorganization. A year later, Klein promoted her to his no. 2. She retired after two years, and later criticized the city’s use of report cards to hold schools and principals accountable.
Why you might see her at Tweed: Farina worked closely with de Blasio when he served on the District 15 board and sources said the two remain close. As a critic of the high-stakes approach to the city’s school progress reports, de Blasio shares Farina’s distaste for an overemphasis on test scores and graduation rates to measure school performance.
Why you might not: After retiring in 2006, Farina consulted with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Institute. But at 70, some said they doubted she would be interested in logging the long and grinding days required for being chancellor of the country’s largest school system. She said she has slowed down to focus on her growing family.
“Decided to spend this year as a full time grandmother,” Farina said in a brief email exchange. “Great unpaid job.”
What she says: “I am enjoying my retirement.”
What a supporter says: “I think that people have a lot of respect for her professionalism. She’s an educator and she’s respected by principals, teachers and parents alike.”
Who he is: The school system’s current instructional boss at the Department of Education is seen as the most likely candidate still working for Bloomberg with a chance to become the next chancellor. Polakow-Suransky, a former teacher and principal who founded a school in the Bronx, was named Chief Academic Officer in 2011 as part of an arrangement that allowed Black, a businesswoman with no public education experience, to become chancellor. Under Polakow-Suransky, city schools transitioned to the Common Core learning standards and is implementing a new evaluation system this year. Though proficiency on state tests fell this year — a result of being tied to the new standards — New York City performed relatively better than other urban school districts in the state.
Why you might see him at Tweed: No one knows more about the changes taking place in New York City classrooms. Regardless of who the next mayor is, those changes will likely continue, and Polakow-Suransky is seen as the person who most broadly understands these policies.
And while he has been a loyal defender of Bloomberg’s reforms, Polakow-Suransky has shown recently he can play nice with some of the administration’s critics. Consider the past week alone: He struck a deal with the union and parents, agreeing to pay teachers overtime to work with parents of struggling students; He penned a column announcing that some schools can opt out of the controversial progress reports that de Blasio deplores; And he spoke to upset parents about the new state tests at a forum in District 15, de Blasio’s old district.
Why you might not: Many believe that scent of Bloomberg will be simply too strong for Polakow-Suransky to wash off. De Blasio was among Bloomberg’s most critical candidates during the campaign, especially on education. His statements indicate that he will seek an aggressive overhaul of the department and making Polakow-Suransky chancellor would make that a hard promise to keep.
What he says: Did not respond to a request for comment
What a supporter says: “It would be very good to have continuity. As much as people don’t like Bloomberg’s reforms, a lot of good has happened.”
Who he is: The third-year superintendent of Montgomery County (Maryland) and among the leading critical voices against the way that evaluation systems and new learning standards have been rolled out across the country. Previously, Starr ran Stamford schools for six years, but has an extensive background in New York City public education as well. After a four-year stint teaching emotionally disturbed students at the School for Career Development in Fort Greene, Starr returned to New York City as one of Andres Alonso’s first hires in 2003. For a year, Starr headed a fledgling and scattered programs office that housed English language learners, special education, gifted & talented, instructional technology and early childhood education. He was later named the director of school performance and accountability where he began developing early versions of the city’s school progress reports.
Why you might see him at Tweed: Starr is an outspoken critic of many of the reforms that have been rolled out under the Bush and Obama administrations — and supported by Bloomberg. His most prominent criticism has been a call to slow down implementation of Common Core-aligned assessments until teachers can have more time to prepare curriculum for it. He’s also against using A-F report cards as an accountability system, which de Blasio said he’d abolish if elected mayor.
Why you might not: Starr lacks the high-level experience of running a large urban school district, which some say is a crucial qualification. And although his profile has ascended rapidly in recent years, Starr is still relatively unknown to many in New York City.
What he says: “I have a job right now that I love and that I’m focused on. I’m flattered to have my name come up in the New York City conversation but I’m deeply committed to the job right now.”
What his supporters say: “If you said the one person who would be the very best person you could think of, it would be josh Starr.” — Carol Burris.
That’s the short list, but we’ve heard many other names surface while speaking to dozens of people for this story. Before the primary, State Education Commissioner John King was seen as a frontrunner, especially if the race was won by Bill Thompson, who had the support of King’s close ally in Albany, Chancellor Merryl Tisch. But sources say King might not be as interested in the job in a de Blasio administration. Other names that were mentioned: Jean-Claude Brizard, a senior advisor at the College Board who held rocky tenures while running schools Rochester and Chicago; Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Chicago’s current schools chief, and Regent Kathy Cashin, a former regional superintendent in Brooklyn.