transition talk

Why hasn't Bill de Blasio appointed a schools chancellor yet?


The day after Bill de Blasio’s landslide general election victory, he pledged to move quickly on what he called his administration’s two most important appointments: police commissioner and schools chancellor.

He took care of the former within a month, and on Nov. 25 he told reporters he’d have information about a chancellor announcement “in a couple more days down the road.” But six weeks into a transition period that is now nearing its end, educators are not only wondering who will be in charge of the school system on Jan. 1. They’re also asking, what’s taking so long?

“Everybody is going crazy,” CUNY education professor David Bloomfield said.

That anxiety has permeated the Department of Education’s offices at Tweed Courthouse, which houses thousands of central staff members, as well as the hallways of the city’s 1,800 schools, which let out today for the 12-day holiday break.

“We’re as interested in it as you are,” said Gary Nusser, assistant principal at M.S. 88 in Park Slope.

So why hasn’t de Blasio picked someone yet? The company line is that he still hasn’t made his mind up and that his deliberation is an illustration of the extreme care he’s putting into the decision—though that also echoes criticisms of his indecisiveness that have dogged de Blasio throughout his political career.

Some privately doubt the level of uncertainty facing de Blasio. Sources say they haven’t heard of a final decision, but that there is a sense that former deputy chancellor Carmen Farina will be the inevitable pick, a rumor that has been amplified by recent stories in the New York Times and the New York Post.

If that’s true, then why are they waiting so long to make the announcement? Originally, Farina told GothamSchools — and, we’re told, de Blasio’s team — that she wasn’t interested in taking the job. But she’s stopped saying that publicly.

Nusser and the rest of the M.S. 88 staff had a chance to gather some inside insight yesterday when Farina, a former superintendent of M.S. 88, stopped by for a three-hour visit to tour the school and observe lessons.

“You guys know as much as I do,” Farina said when asked about her candidacy, according to Nusser. “I’m just as much in the dark as you are.”

Another explanation for the delay could be that there is some behind-the-scenes work going on to secure additional people to take key positions in the education department. It’s unclear how much of the current cabinet will remain long after Bloomberg exits, since de Blasio signaled during the campaign that he wants a clean break from the current administration.

Many observers expected the announcement to come this week at the very latest. But the transition team’s plans might simply be more backed up than they anticipated.

De Blasio’s team had been planning a “major education-related announcement” on Dec. 16, according to an email sent out last week on behalf of Irwin Redlener and Jeffrey Sachs, two leading supporters of de Blasio’s new pre-K lobbying campaign, UPKNYC. The campaign’s launch, the only public event related to education this week, didn’t happen until Thursday.

At that event, de Blasio said that the decision would be coming soon. “I’m not going to jump too soon,” he said.

The delay leaves next week, a dead period in the news cycle when schools are closed and teachers and families are less likely to be looking for daily updates about who their chancellor will be when they return to school on Jan. 2. 

The narrow window also calls into question the level of preparation that the next chancellor will have to take over immediately in the new year.

Much of the school system’s day-to-day operations, like school lunch delivery and school funding, will likely buzz along without too much disruption. And while Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s last day is Dec. 31, second-in-command Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer, will stay on to lead.

But Polakow-Suransky, de Blasio and his next chancellor will face at least one immediate crisis: As many as 40,000 students could be without bus transportation on their first day back because the city’s largest school bus contractor is going out of business on Dec. 31, a bankruptcy tied to the city’s cost-saving decision to bid out new contracts without seniority provisions last year.

“I think it would have been beneficial to the person to have had more of a transition period,” said Veronica Conforme, former DOE chief operating officer. “They’re walking into a team that’s already built. Getting to know the folks is important and this person is not going to get a chance to do that.”

“The types of things that come in front of the chancellor every day are very urgent, everything from a student getting hurt over the weekend, to a school facility issue,” Conforme added. “There is not day where nothing happens.”

here's the plan

After long wait, de Blasio backs plan to overhaul admissions at New York City’s elite high schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School will begin participating in the Discovery program this year.

After sustained pressure from advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing a two-step plan to reform admissions at eight of the city’s elite high schools and endorsing a specific replacement for the single-test admissions system.

The city’s specialized high schools — considered some of the crown jewels of New York City’s education system — accept students based on a single test score. Over the last decade, they have come under fire for offering admissions to few students of color: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

De Blasio’s solution, laid out in an op-ed in Chalkbeat, would set aside 20 percent of the seats at the eight schools for students from low-income families starting next school year. Students who just missed the test score cut-off would be able to earn one of those set-aside seats through the longstanding “Discovery” program. Just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017.

The mayor also said he plans to push state lawmakers to change a law that requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score. That’s something de Blasio campaigned for during his run for mayor in 2014 but hasn’t made a priority since.

Most significantly, de Blasio says for the first time that he backs a system of replacing the admissions test with a system that picks students based on their middle school class rank and state test scores. The middle-school rank component is especially notable, as an NYU Steinhardt report found that the only way to really change the makeup of the elite high schools would be to guarantee admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school.

If all of these changes were implemented, de Blasio says that 45 percent of the student bodies at the eight high schools would be black or Latino.

Together, the proposals reflect the most specific plan yet to change a system that, year after year, becomes a symbol of New York City’s racially divided schools. But the changes de Blasio is proposing won’t come easily — and might not come at all.

The part of the plan that the city is promising to do on its own, expand the Discovery program, will only modestly improve diversity by the city’s own admission. And the plan’s more ambitious elements would require buy-in from state lawmakers who have repeatedly resisted de Blasio’s agenda and attempts to change admissions rules.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s plan does not include a move that many legal experts consider to be low-hanging fruit: changing the admissions rules at five of the eight schools without state approval.

While the city’s official position has long been that admissions at all eight schools are set by law, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School — are specifically mentioned, leaving room for the city to reclassify the others. (De Blasio recently said he would ask lawyers about that change, but has not signaled he plans to act.)

The Discovery program has also proved problematic for de Blasio, in part because it is open to all low-income students — something that is not equivalent to black or Hispanic in New York City. The de Blasio administration has already tripled the program’s size since taking office, but its share of black and Latino students has also shrunk.

A lot of questions about the plan remain unanswered. It’s not clear whether the 20 percent of set-aside seats will be spread across the eight schools evenly, for one, or whether some schools like Stuyvesant will have fewer seats earmarked for Discovery. De Blasio doesn’t explain exactly how an admissions system reliant on middle-school grades and standardized test scores would work.

It’s also unclear how the mayor plans to push against opposition from alumni groups and parents who may worry that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards, though his rhetoric was sharp in the op-ed.

“Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative,” de Blasio wrote. “It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it.”

So far, de Blasio’s incremental steps to boost diversity at specialized high schools have made little change to the overall student body — and therefore garnered little pushback.

It’s unclear whether the lackluster results caused him to switch strategies. More recently, de Blasio has also been under pressure to address school segregation in the city as a whole.

He may also have been pushed by his new schools chancellor, who has been outspoken on the subject since taking the helm of the school system about two months ago. Chancellor Richard Carranza has been talking about the issue since his very first media interview, and has repeatedly hinted that he is interested in changing their admissions process.

“From my perspective it’s not OK to have a public school in a city as diverse… and that you have only 10 African-American students in a high school,” Carranza said in April. “So I’m looking at that, absolutely.”

sorting the students

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Our specialized schools have a diversity problem. Let’s fix it.

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

I visit schools across this city and it never fails to energize me. The talent out there is outstanding. The students overflow with promise. But many of the smart kids I meet aren’t getting in to our city’s most prestigious high schools. In fact, they’re being locked out.

The problem is clear. Eight of our most renowned high schools – including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School – rely on a single, high-stakes exam. The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed – it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.

If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over.

Let’s select students for our top public high schools in a manner that best reflects the talent these students have, and the reality of who lives in New York City. Let’s have top-flight public high schools that are fair and represent the highest academic standards.

Right now, we are living with monumental injustice. The prestigious high schools make 5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders. Yet, this year just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black.

There’s also a geographic problem. There are almost 600 middle schools citywide. Yet, half the students admitted to the specialized high schools last year came from just 21 of those schools. For a perfect illustration of disparity: Just 14 percent of students at Bronx Science come from the Bronx.

Can anyone defend this? Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools? Can anyone say this is the America we signed up for?

Our best colleges don’t select students this way. Our top-level graduate schools don’t. There are important reasons why. Some people are good at taking tests, but earn poor grades. Other people struggle with testing, but achieve top grades. The best educational minds get it. You can’t write a single test that captures the full reality of a person.

A single, high-stakes exam is also unfair to students whose families cannot afford, or may not even know about, the availability of test preparation tutors and courses. Now, I’d like to stop and say, I admire the many families who scrape and save to pay for test prep. They are trying in every way to support their children.

But let’s ask ourselves: Why should families who can ill afford test prep have to spend their money on it? Why should families who can easily afford test prep have an advantage over those that cannot?

My administration has been working to give a wider range of excellent students a fair shot at the specialized high schools. Now we are going to go further. Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off.

This will immediately bring a wider variety of high-performing students, from a wider number of middle schools, to the specialized high schools. For example, the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent. The number of middle schools represented will go from around 310 to around 400.

This will also address a fundamental illogic baked into the high-stakes test. A great score and you might be in, but beware a point too low and you might be out. Now, a disadvantaged student who is just a point or two shy of the cut-off won’t be blocked from a great educational opportunity.

For a deeper solution, we will fight alongside our partners in the Assembly and Senate to replace the SHSAT with a new admissions process, selecting students based on a combination of the student’s rank in their middle school and their results in the statewide tests that all middle school children take.

With these reforms, we expect our premier public high schools to start looking like New York City. Approximately 45 percent of students would be Latino or black. As an example of growing geographical fairness, we will quadruple the number of Bronx students admitted.

I’ve talked a lot about bringing equity and excellence to our schools. This new admissions process will give every student in every middle school a fair shot. That’s equity. The new process will ask students to demonstrate hard work over time, and show brilliance in a variety of subjects. That’s excellence.

Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative. It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it. This perpetuates a dangerous and disgusting myth.

So let me be clear. The new system we’re fighting for will raise the bar at the specialized high schools in every way. The pool of talent is going to expand widely and rapidly. That’s going to up the level of competition. The students who emerge from the new process will make these schools even stronger.

They will also make our society stronger. Our most prestigious public high schools aren’t just routes to opportunity for deserving students and their families. They are incubators for the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. The kind of high schools we have today, will determine the kind of New York City we will have tomorrow.

Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City.