The Next Schools Chancellor

In choosing a police commissioner, Bill de Blasio put aside his campaign pose as the Park Slope progressive alternative to the Giuliani-Bloomberg years. His selection of Bill Bratton as the city’s top cop was a signal that the incoming mayor understood the difference between campaigning and governing.

Now Mr. de Blasio is facing another critical choice to oversee a highly contested agency: schools chancellor. Here’s hoping that common sense and pragmatism prevail over ideology once again.

Dennis Walcott has served as chancellor for nearly three years under Michael Bloomberg. (Photo by Getty Images)

Dennis Walcott has served as chancellor for nearly three years under Michael Bloomberg. (Photo by Getty Images)

The stakes for progress in the city’s schools and for continued reform could not be higher. Mr. de Blasio no doubt is under great pressure from the United Federation of Teachers and shortsighted parents to return the schools to the bad old days of lax accountability, archaic work rules and a mindless seniority system. In other words, back to a time when the union and special interest groups ran the schools for their own benefit, not for the children.

Mr. de Blasio simply must resist these retrograde arguments as he considers his choice to succeed the admirable Dennis Walcott, surely one of the Bloomberg administration’s unsung heroes. As chancellor for nearly three years, Mr. Walcott built on the legacy of Mr. Bloomberg’s first chancellor, Joel Klein, by continuing to support charter schools, insisting on the importance of data-collection and assessment and seeking to weed out bad teachers while encouraging the work of good teachers.

And let’s not forget Mr. Bloomberg’s own role in challenging the status quo. When he succeeded in winning mayoral control over the schools, demolishing one of the city’s most sacred cows, the old Board of Education and its fortress on Livingston Street in Brooklyn, he achieved something others mayors wished for but never achieved. The new Department of Education, answerable directly to the mayor, has implemented the mayor’s vision of a more accountable, student-centered school system to the benefit of all save the grumbling dinosaurs who inhabit the UFT’s headquarters. Mayoral control is the critical piece in achieving the reforms of the last 12 years.

As much as Messrs. Bloomberg, Klein and Walcott sought to institutionalize accountability and creativity in the classroom, the work of the last 12 years could be reversed if Mr. de Blasio makes a poor choice to lead the city’s schools. Some of the names being bandied about suggest that hidebound ideology may yet trump pragmatic, results-driven educational policy in City Hall.

For example, one of those on Mr. de Blasio’s short list for chancellor is said to be Carmen Farina, who served as second-in-command to Mr. Klein several years ago. While Ms. Farina has an impressive record, she shares with the mayor-elect an unfounded suspicion of test scores and is not quite convinced that graduation rates are an important tool for measuring a secondary school’s performance. After she retired as Mr. Klein’s top assistant, she was critical of the administration’s reliance on report cards to hold principals accountable for their school’s performance. The union no doubt would love to see Ms. Farina, or somebody like her, in charge of the sprawling school system.

Parents and students, however, deserve better. Over the last dozen years, the city has held teachers to higher standards, emphasized the importance of teacher quality in improving student performance, closed failing schools and opened new ones, and narrowed the achievement gap in one of the world’s most diverse big-city school systems. The results are indisputable: From 2005 to 2012, the graduation rate for African-American students rose from 40.1 percent to 59.8 percent, while the rate for Hispanics grew from 37.4 percent to 57.5 percent. Clearly somebody is doing something right.

Test scores, evaluations and graduation rates are all key components of this process. The new chancellor can either widen the use of such important tools or ignore them. Those who wish to build on the reforms of the last 12 years can only hope that the new chancellor decides on the former course of action.

And then there’s Mr. de Blasio himself. His actions, as well as those of his chancellor, will determine whether or not the city continues to reform the schools or if the system returns to the unaccountable bureaucracy it was in the last century.

Mr. de Blasio made it clear during the campaign that he favors continued mayoral control over the schools. But he needs to reiterate that stance forcefully, because the UFT and its allies in the state legislature have never reconciled themselves to this necessary reform. Albany was reluctant to approve mayoral control in the first place, and there’s no shortage of legislators who would be delighted to present the UFT with a gift in the form of a repeal of mayoral control.

And then there’s the matter of the UFT’s contract. The teachers have been working without a contract since 2009, and they expect Mr. de Blasio to be more sympathetic—i.e., more generous —than Mr. Bloomberg.

The union wants a retroactive pay hike. That’s a nonstarter. The city can’t afford it, and besides, such a move would set a terrible precedent for contract talks with every other public employee union.

In return for a modest pay increase moving forward, the UFT needs to drop its opposition to teacher evaluations and its insistence on protecting the archaic seniority system in the schools. What’s more, the union has to recognize that the days of keeping inactive teachers on the payroll must end. The city currently spends about $144 million per year on teachers whose positions have been eliminated. Under current work rules, if those teachers do not find jobs elsewhere in the system, they are held in reserve as substitutes while drawing full-time salaries. That is not sustainable, and Mr. de Blasio has to make that clear at the bargaining table.

The union and its allies were thrilled earlier this year when Mr. de Blasio expressed his skepticism of the vibrant charter school movement. He suggested that he might end the city’s policy of locating charters within traditional school buildings, a policy that has allowed charters to thrive in poorly served communities.

As mayor, Mr. de Blasio has to put aside his rhetoric on charters. This revolution in education has raised hopes and expectations in dozens of neighborhoods and is attracting highly motivated teachers who thrive in a creative, flexible atmosphere.

Ideologues don’t like charters, because they exist outside of the world of work rules and union control. Of course, that’s precisely why they work so well. Mr. de Blasio needs to keep New York in the forefront of this progressive revolution in education.

New York simply cannot afford to return the schools to the union bosses and bureaucrats who ran the system before Mr. Bloomberg took charge of it. Mr. de Blasio’s choice of chancellor and his own actions as the ultimate head of the school system will tell us a great deal about whether the city will move forward in the second decade of the 21st century or whether we will march backward.