POLITICS

Who Will Bill De Blasio Pick As NYC Schools Chief?

11/05/2013 04:23 pm ET | Updated Nov 06, 2013
AP

NEW YORK -- The outcome of Tuesday's mayoral election may be largely a foregone conclusion, as Public Advocate Bill de Blasio (D) is expected to trounce former transit director Joe Lhota (R). But major questions still hang over certain aspects of an impending de Blasio administration, among the more notable of these: Who will he put in charge of the nation's largest school district?

Many a New York publication has compiled its list of potential chancellors, who have ranged from the former leader of Baltimore's public schools to the current head of a school district in Maryland who has resisted increased standardized testing.

In the days leading up to the election, though, a new name trickled out of the rumor mill. Earlier this week, Page Six of the New York Post ran an item saying that de Blasio was "considering hiring teachers' union boss Randi Weingarten as the next NYC schools chancellor." A source told columnist Richard Johnson that "she wants the job."

Weingarten served as head of the city's United Federation of Teachers union before ascending to the presidency of the American Federation of Teachers a few years ago.

In an October interview with The Huffington Post, Weingarten said she "wouldn't entertain the question." On Tuesday, she reiterated as much. In response to the Post item, she tweeted a plea to talk about "something serious, like getting out the vote." She added, "I love my job, hope to be in it for a while and am not indulging rumors."

And on Tuesday morning, de Blasio quickly shot down the rumor himself. "I have never had that conversation with anyone," he told reporters. "I don't know where you're getting that from."

In the hypothetical, such a choice would be unorthodox. Kenneth Wong, a Brown University professor who studies school governance, said he doesn't recall anything like it in recent history. Writer Steve Brill, a fan of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's brand of education reform, raised eyebrows by suggesting that Bloomberg appoint Weingarten in his 2011 book Class Warfare. (According to Brill's book, Weingarten responded to the proposition with excitement. She said, "Anyone who really cares about educating public school children would take that job.")

As mayor, Bloomberg's actual picks for chancellor were controversial in their own right: His first pick, Joel Klein, was an anti-trust attorney with little teaching experience; his short-lived second chancellor, former Hearst executive Cathie Black, was still more puzzling. Bloomberg subsequently appointed his deputy Dennis Walcott after Black's 2011 ouster.

Bloomberg's tenure was marked by an expansion in charter schools, a decrease in the number of teachers who earn tenure, and the closure of large campuses to make way for smaller schools -- often located in the same building.

De Blasio has campaigned on an education platform that opposed the Bloomberg education agenda. He has said he'd make charter schools pay rent, and has called for a moratorium on school closures and so-called co-locations. He has also said he'd appoint an educator to the post of chancellor.

As Weingarten's profile has risen, some have asked questioned her teaching credentials. In an exchange with a blogger on a blog called Chalk Face, Weingarten was asked for a clarification of how much teaching she actually did before climbing the union ladder. "I taught from 1991 to 1997, full and part time, at Clara Barton High School," Weingarten wrote in response. "High schools in New York City are organized on a semester basis, so for one semester I taught five periods and did lunch duty. During the other five and a half years, I taught one, two or three courses, as I was also the counsel and chief negotiator for the UFT. This was similar to other UFTers who also held union responsibilities."

Despite Weingarten's evasions, the rumors suggest a possible direction for her ambitions.

"It suggests that she's interested in a position other than the one that she has now," said Tim Daly, president of the teacher placement group TNTP, when asked about the implications of Weingarten's reported desire to run the city's schools. "It's probably in keeping with her record of wanting to be an influential figure, not just among unions but in education more broadly ... There have not been a lot of union leaders that have made that leap."

He added that the position would have one obvious and major issue. "It's a strange one to pursue -- if she is pursuing it -- because of the obvious conflict of interest of having to negotiate a contract with the union she once led," he said.

And even Weingarten's other cheerleader, Brill, doesn't think the appointment would work in the context of a de Blasio administration. "A traditional Democrat appointing Weingarten would be seen correctly as a big step back from reform," he said. "As I wrote in the book, Bloomberg appointing her ... would be seen as exactly the opposite." Brill wrote that, had Bloomberg appointed Weingarten, it would have been seen as a "Nixon-to-China play," in that it could have helped to sell union members on more unpalatable ideas like tougher evaluations.

Wong took another view. "Being a union leader, she's in the best possible position to understand union-workplace issues," he said. "Randi would open a new and interesting dynamic."

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