De Blasio May Feel Pressure to Meet Diversity Vow With His Schools Chancellor Pick

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio with his pick for police commissioner, Bill Bratton. (Photo: Christopher Gregory/Getty)

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio with his pick for police commissioner, Bill Bratton. (Photo: Christopher Gregory/Getty)

What Bill Bratton, the incoming police commissioner, and Anthony Shorris, the new first deputy mayor, have in common–beyond the tremendous scope of their new authority and years of experience–is one rather simple fact: they are both white men in a city where the majority of people are not. 

This, some observers say, may drive pressure for Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio to weigh very carefully the race and gender of those he considers for what is arguably the next most crucial post in his administration: Chancellor of the Department of Education.

“If you’re going to claim the mantle of the clean break and change administration, you need to live up to that,” said one Democratic insider. “So if the first two things you do as mayor are bring in Rudy Giuliani’s police commissioner and then appoint some ‘boring old white guy,’ as Chiara would put it, to run the schools–progressives are going to start questioning his commitment to their issues.”

Mr. de Blasio has previously stressed that he would prioritize diversity in his hiring, ensuring he builds an administration that “looks like New York.” In an interview with NY1 last night, Mr. Shorris was asked about the optics of Mr. de Blasio’s picks so far. In response, he advised the public to wait to render judgement until every post was filled.

“Does this administration look like the city it serves? You need to ask that question when that administration’s in place,” he said. “We’ve only made the first preliminary step on that with the police commissioner and the deputy mayor.”

For Mr. de Blasio, who prominently featured his biracial family in his campaign and performed especially well among communities of color on Election Day, diversity cannot be discounted, especially for schools chancellor. The post oversees a highly centralized system of more than a million schoolchildren and is invested with great power to set policy and usher in change.

“I think for someone who used optics so strategically in the primary and general to win with 73 percent of the vote, he’s very cognizant of what visuals look like,” said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University. “What we now know as fact, and people tried to deny this for many years, is that there are women who are qualified and people of color who are qualified that haven’t been tapped.”

One frequent de Blasio critic alleged that Mr. de Blasio’s two other hires so far–Dominic Williams, who is black, as Mr. Shorris’s chief of staff and Emma Wolfe, a woman, as director of intergovernmental affairs–were simply made public the same day as Mr. Shorris’s announcement as tokens of diversity.

“I don’t think I remember seeing in the history of mayoral appointment press conferences, where you appoint a deputy mayor and then announce the appointment of his chief of staff. That doesn’t happen,” Councilman Charles Barron declared on the steps of City Hall last week. “He did that because the chief of staff was black and he needed to paint that picture of a white man, a black, a woman … He did that to give the picture of the diversity in that first press conference because he didn’t want to come to the public and have two white men in a row.”

Mr. Bloomberg generally receives mixed grades from observers when it comes to the diversity in his hires. Among his first appointments was Dennis Walcott in the senior position of deputy mayor for policy. Mr. Walcott, who is black, now serves as schools chancellor. (He succeeded Joel Klein and Cathie Black, a former publishing executive, who resigned after a tumultuous 96 days on the job.) Nonetheless, the bulk of top members of Mr. Bloomberg’s administration, both past and present, are white, and critics–including Mr. de Blasio–have decried Mr. Bloomberg’s alleged lack of attention to diversity in his highest ranks.

Several of the candidates Mr. de Blasio is reportedly mulling for the chancellor’s position are women or racial minorities. Leading contenders include women like Carmen Farina, a former deputy schools chancellor, Barbara Byrd Bennett, C.E.O. of the Chicago Public Schools, Kathleen Cashin, member of the New York City Board of Regents, and Kaya Henderson, a chancellor of the Washington D.C. public schools. Andres Alonso, a former chief executive of the Baltimore schools system, is Hispanic; Ms. Henderson is black. Another top contender, Maryland schools chancellor Josh Starr, is white.

Mr. de Blasio’s spokeswoman pointed Politicker to previous statements the mayor-elect has made on the topic.

But even more important, education observers agree, will be for Mr. de Blasio to choose a chancellor in line with his education philosophy–especially after going with establishment-oriented picks for first deputy mayor and police commissioner. Under the tenure of Mr. Bloomberg’s longest-serving chancellor, Mr. Klein, and his successors, the city opened many new charter schools, upped the stakes of standardized testing, shuttered schools that were deemed failing and instituted new measures of accountability for teachers. Mr. de Blasio, a public school parent, has pushed back against some of these reform measures, vowing to oversee a system less oriented toward charter schools and testing.

Some candidates, like Mr. Starr, are very much in tune with Mr. de Blasio’s stated ideology on these matters. Others, like Ms. Henderson, are not.

“It’s a matter of optics. But in terms of selecting the best chancellor for the long term, the educational positions and background are most important,” David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, told Politicker.

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