getting to know you

Five things you may not know about the next schools chancellor

What do we know about Cathie Black?

Most of the profiles of her published so far focus on her management style, her similarities to her new boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and her lack of substantive experience in education.

But other details are beginning to surface. Here are some things we’ve learned so far:

This is not the first time she has walked into a management situation as an almost complete outsider.

Seven pages into her memoir-like business advice book, newly-appointed city schools chancellor Cathie Black recounts an episode that suggests yesterday’s events may have felt like deja-vu.

In the book, Black describes the first time she walked into the offices of USA Today to meet the staff. She had just been named president following the newspaper’s tumultuous first year:

I was also a female, non-newspaper person and an absolute unknown quantity to these people — many of whom had just learned about my hiring moments beforehand. As I looked around the room, I could feel the questions in the air: Was I a savior, a marketing genius who could turn the paper around? Or would I be a flop?

Twenty-seven years later, Black is in a similar situation: an outsider entering a school system whose members have as many questions about her as she does about them. Even her predecessor, current Chancellor Joel Klein, only found out that she would take the position on Monday, he told reporters today.

She’s checked in with the teachers union head, but hasn’t set a date to meet them yet.

Black called teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew yesterday, a union spokesman said. No word yet on when the new chancellor will sit down with the union heads to talk shop, however. As Bloomberg pointed out yesterday, Mulgrew and Black have met once before — but only in passing.

There is a growing movement lobbying State Education Commissioner David Steiner not to grant her the waiver she needs to become chancellor.

Because Black lacks the minimum of three years’ education experience required under state law to become chancellor, she will need a waiver from State Education Commissioner David Steiner. Before Steiner can grant the waiver, he must appoint a panel to review the mayor’s reasons Black should have this job.

Critics of the mayor’s decision to appoint a businesswoman who lacks education experience are now rallying around the waiver process, urging Steiner not to grant it. As of around 7:30 this evening, more than 950 people had signed an online petition posted yesterday calling for the state education department to deny the waiver.

Black’s appointment has also drawn criticism from a number of state legislators, including Senators Bill Perkins and Carl Kruger and incoming Senator Tony Avella. State Assemblyman Marcos A. Crespo also sent Steiner a letter today opposing Black’s appointment and saying that he is considering legislation that could block waivers for non-educators in the future.

Steiner answers to the State Board of Regents, who are appointed by the Assembly.  So if political opposition to Black’s appointment grows — particularly in the State Assembly and especially in the office of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — there’s a possibility it could doom her chances.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch yesterday seemed cautiously supportive of the mayor’s appointment.  “At the heart of mayoral control, I truly believe in allowing the mayor to make his choices,” Tisch told City Hall News.

If layoffs come, she will have a strategy.

One of the biggest questions of next year will be whether the city can avoid massive teacher layoffs. For this school year, the city skirted layoffs by spending the money it had set aside for future teacher raises to plug its budget gap. But next year marks the end of the federal stimulus money it has been relying on to balance state budget cuts, and city officials have warned that it’s unclear how they might make up the difference. Klein told reporters today that he believes layoffs are a real threat.

Black is coming from the publishing industry, which has seen its fair share of financial woes, and she has personal experience as the manager who breaks the bad news. In a video called “Layoff Lessons” that Forbes posted today, Black explains how she approached layoffs in publishing:

Well, for the person having to do the dirty deed, it’s very hard. I mean, I think you want to have thought through it very carefully, you want to have worked with your human resources department. You want to have a package already prepared for each individual. You want to get your message out. You don’t have to have an hour’s conversation. Because about the first five words that come out of your mouth, as in, “a department is not going to exist any longer,” they have mentally checked out. They are listening to one more word that you are saying, so it’s like, make it short and sweet.

But you have to be empathetic. It’s a very hard time there today. So I think you want to be fair. You know, walking around a little bit is not a bad thing to do. I think in tough times you want to be seen walking the floors.

Black’s political donations span the ideological spectrum.

Over the past five years, Black has given money to both Democrats and Republicans from all over the country, the Village Voice reports. Her biggest political donations have been not to candidates, however, but to the Magazine Publishers of America, the industry’s political action committee. In the most recent election cycle, the PAC gave more to Democrats than to Republicans


Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.