The always reliable Patrick Wall of Chalkbeat has been following an intriguing story, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s efforts to roll back or close down many of the programs and projects begun when her predecessor, Joel Klein, was Chancellor. She seem to have targeted for extinction what are known as ‘partnership support organizations’ like New Visions for Public Schools and the Center for Educational Innovation. As Chalkbeat’s Wall reported on February 13,
Bloomberg and his long-serving schools chief, Joel Klein, launched the partnership program in 2007 as part of their push to let schools choose the type of support they received. Nonprofit groups such as New Visions and the Urban Assembly — which had also opened new schools — joined the program, as did universities such as CUNY and Fordham. Schools paid the groups up to $60,000 or so each year for their services, which include everything from help with hiring and budgeting to teacher training and data analysis.
Chancellor Fariña has also made clear that she does not support small high schools, which are central to the New Visions for Public Schools approach. Again quoting Chalkbeat’s Wall:
The small schools it designed were essential to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of closing large, low-performing high schools — a tactic despised by many parents and educators, and condemned by de Blasio. De Blasio’s schools chief, Carmen Fariña, expressed skepticism about a multiyear study that found that students who enrolled at the small schools were more likely to graduate and attend college than peers who ended up at other high schools.
When Fariña was preparing to overhaul Bloomberg’s school-support system, New Visions board members grew so concerned that they met with a top official at City Hall to argue for a continuing role under the new structure.
“Met with a top official at City Hall” doesn’t quite capture what happened. My sources say that two of New York City’s major power brokers went to the Mayor and told him, point blank, that he wouldn’t get a dime from real estate, finance and law for his re-election effort if he didn’t tell Fariña to keep her hands off New Visions.
The result: New Visions is doing better than ever. “It would have been a political nightmare for the mayor to pull the plug” on New Visions, said David Bloomfield, an education professor at the CUNY Grad Center and Brooklyn College, who has called for more scrutiny of the PSOs,” Wall reported.
However, what is equally important here is that Mayor de Blasio did not order her to cease and desist with CEI, Fordham or any other non-governmental organizations connected with Bloomberg and Klein, and so she has continued to centralize authority and shut down programs begun during Michael Bloomberg’s 12-year Mayoralty.
What in the world is Chancellor Fariña doing? Why?
Here are four theories:
1) Fariña, a veteran bureaucrat, is doing what comes naturally, consolidating her power;
3) It’s a re-election strategy; and
4) Mayoral incompetence.
Theory #1: She is consolidating power in order to impose her vision on the system. Chancellor Fariña often talks about “restoration,” but skeptical observers wonder what ‘good old days’ she harkens back to. The New York City public school system has never worked for most Black and Hispanic students, and it has not done well by special needs kids either. However, in those ‘good old days,’ power was concentrated at the top, and that’s what she’s doing.
Bloomberg and Klein believed in letting 100 flowers bloom (as long as school principals were the gardeners and unions were on the sidelines). In contrast, supporting teachers is clearly central to Chancellor Fariña’s vision. In the two speeches I heard her deliver early in her tenure, she talked about elevating teachers, restoring respect for them and so on. But that was the extent of it, from what I heard. I didn’t detect any grand vision for the million+ students she’s responsible for.
Theory #2: Vindictiveness. Could closing down Bloomberg/Klein initiatives (including successful ones) be nothing more than an effort to erase Bloomberg’s legacy? Those who remember how the new Mayor allowed speaker after speaker at his inauguration to attack the departing Mayor (who was sitting in the front row) believe this is more of the same petty behavior.
As one non-fan of the current Mayor says, “It’s bad to be a sore loser, but it’s really unforgivable to be a sore winner.”
Is Chancellor Fariña vindictive? I don’t have a clear reading. In public, she’s still seen as the “Sweet Grandmother Who Was Persuaded to Come out of Retirement to Serve,” but her critics describe her as controlling, small-minded and mean-spirited, adjectives that have also been employed to describe her boss.
Theory #3: It’s all about being re-elected, and that requires getting close to teachers. The lobbyist that Mayor de Blasio has met with most often happens to be Michael Mulgrew, the President of the UFT, the local teacher union.
“The men usually chat weekly and sometimes daily. The mayor has become a regular at union parties, lunches and other events. Mr. Mulgrew says he often suggests education policy to City Hall,” Josh Dawsey reported in the Wall Street Journal on March 15th. He continued:
The teachers union, which has about 200,000 members, didn’t originally warm to Mr. de Blasio. It endorsed Bill Thompson the 2013 Democratic primary for mayor. It went on to endorse Mr. de Blasio in the general election, making him the first winning candidate for mayor endorsed by the union since David Dinkins in 1989.
With an eye to the 2017 election, the mayor’s political team sees the union as an important ally. With polls showing that New Yorkers aren’t happy with the city’s public schools, the issue is a vulnerable one for the mayor.
So, erasing Bloomberg/Klein could be de Blasio’s way of cozying up to teachers and their union. Perhaps he’s gambling that putting his re-election eggs in the teacher union basket will be enough to win him another term.
Theory #4: Another Rookie Mistake: This could be just another fumble by de Blasio. He wanted Montgomery County (MD) Superintendent Josh Starr as his Schools Chancellor. Starr is a true progressive as well as a New Yorker. I have it on good authority that Education Secretary Arne Duncan called de Blasio to voice his disapproval, and it’s possible that the UFT made its objections known as well. Rather than search for another progressive, de Blasio turned to Fariña, a conventional educator.
That isn’t the Mayor’s only fumble in the education arena. Although de Blasio campaigned on a promise to create universal free pre-kindergarten and had Governor Andrew Cuomo’s financial commitment, he did not move to close that deal on Day One. Instead, he chose to attack Eva Moskowitz over the issue of co-locating her Success Academy charter schools in traditional school buildings. Enraged, the fiery former City Council Member went into full attack mode. She enlisted the support of Daniel Loeb and other billionaire donors and bused hundreds of Success Academy children and parents to Albany for a rally that Governor Cuomo spoke at. In sum, she gave de Blasio an old-fashioned schoolyard whupping.
After his ill-timed attack on Moskowitz, a desperate de Blasio tried an end run with the Legislature. When that failed, our Mayor lost more credibility, and Governor Cuomo put the City’s ‘mayoral control of schools’ on a very short leash. From that day forward, Governor Cuomo has gone out of his way to embarrass the rookie Mayor.
Whether the explanation for what Chancellor Fariña is doing is a classic bureaucratic power grab, vindictiveness, a re-election strategy, or incompetence–or some combination, two things seem clear to me: Good programs are being cancelled and much-needed supports for struggling students are being removed. That’s a crying shame.