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Iris Chen to helm school system’s private fundraising arm

Iris Chen was tapped as the city’s new executive director of the Fund for Public Schools. (LinkedIn)
Iris Chen was tapped as the city’s new executive director of the Fund for Public Schools. (LinkedIn)

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has picked Iris Chen to be her top private fundraiser at the Department of Education, a job that played an outsized role under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Chen takes over as executive director of the Fund for Public Schools, an office that serves as a conduit for philanthropies, corporations and individuals who want to donate money to Department of Education initiatives. The job has been vacant since her predecessor, Julia Bator, departed in March after three years.

The fundraising arm was established in 1982, but has seen a resurgence after Bloomberg and former Chancellor Joel Klein took control of the school system. Since then, the office has raised nearly $400 million, including a record $47.7 million in 2013, a spokesperson said.

The private money is used to fund dozens of initiatives each year, from the much-touted Summer Quest program, to family reading nights, to an early childhood center in Brownsville. Under Bloomberg, the funds have also been used to support the administration’s more controversial policies, like a teacher evaluation pilot and the creation of 150 small school high schools with a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

An open question is whether Mayor Bill de Blasio and Fariña will rely as heavily on private donors to promote their education priorities, which include the rapid expansion of prekindergarten and after school programs. Bloomberg, a billionaire, occasionally donated money to the fund through his personal philanthropy, while Klein brought on Caroline Kennedy to kickstart fundraising during the administration’s early years.

De Blasio has scrutinized the role that private fundraising plays in some charter schools, at one point proposing to charge rent to the ones that bring in the most donations. He later backed off the proposal in response to political pressure and, subsequently, a state law that outright banned it.

The fund does not say where all of its money comes from and faced criticism over the transparency issue. State lawmakers have also scrutinized whether the organization should continue to be exempt from financial disclosure laws that most nonprofits are required to follow.

Under Chen, the fund will promote pre-K and after-school, as well as the Common Core learning standards and greater access to libraries and arts programming, according to a press release announcing Chen’s appointment.

Chen previously worked two stints as an executive at Teach for America, first heading the nonprofit’s New York office and, most recently, helping with a startup aimed at developing young leaders. In between, from 2007 to 2013, Chen was CEO and President of the I Have a Dream Foundation, a national organization that seeks to tackle barriers that stand between disadvantaged students and college.

Chen started out as an elementary school teacher at P.S. 307 in Brooklyn, where she taught for three years.

“Iris’s roots as an educator and her focus on communication and collaboration will allow her to work effectively with educators and families,” Fariña said in a statement.

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