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Teaching Profession Opinion

Randi for Chancellor?

By Rick Hess — December 06, 2013 2 min read
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Bill de Blasio, New York’s new mayor, is seeking a schools chancellor. Truth is, I’m pretty impressed by some of the names that have been popping up in the search. Wednesday’s NYT speculated that DC supe Kaya Henderson and Montgomery County chief Josh Starr are leading contenders. Chicago supe Barbara Byrd-Bennett is also reportedly in the mix. They’re all immensely talented, and any of these would be a stellar choice. They come at the challenges of school improvement in different ways and with distinctive guiding philosophies, but I find all three impressive as hell.

That said, today, I want to chat briefly about one of the more out-there names that’s been surfaced for chancellor. Brewing behind the scenes is a small, quiet campaign to convince de Blasio to appoint Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, previously the chief of New York’s United Federation of Teachers and longtime sparring partner of former chancellor Joel Klein. I think the Weingarten-for-chancellor idea is an intriguing one.

First, it’d be fascinating to see Weingarten sitting across the table from UFT honcho Michael Mulgrew. After all, union leaders have long insisted that they’re all in on doing what it takes to deliver excellent schools. They’ve argued that the problem with “reformers” is mostly in the mechanistic, test-fueled, heavy-handed way they’ve gone about their business. Okay. I’ve got a lot of sympathy for that complaint. So, given the chance to do better, I’d love to see what Weingarten and Mulgrew cooked up with regards to accountability, hiring, teacher evaluation, school calendar, charter schooling, low-performing schools, differentiated roles and compensation, and the rest. If they impressed, that’d be terrific. If not, that’d be instructive.

Second, so much of the discussion about schooling today tends to get wrapped up in things that educators can’t control--namely, poverty and its discontents. One intriguing thing about Weingarten being chancellor is that she’d be charged with finding a way to improve schooling, even in the face of all those real challenges. It would be an illuminating glimpse at a union-derived improvement agenda, stripped of the rhetoric and social welfare wish lists. Could Weingarten offer a path that’s more educationally promising than the approaches she’s critiqued?

Third, I’d love to see how Weingarten would wrestle with pay and spending, given the practical constraints. NYC has imposing pension obligations (no surprise there) and less to offer than its employees would like. Presented with a sympathetic chancellor, would the employees willingly compromise on pay and help dig the city out of its long-term fiscal hole? I’m dubious, but it’d be nice to see what would happen. After all, union leaders often bemoan the lack of trust they have in the administration, and explain that they’d be happy to deal if they had someone who wanted to work with them. Well, this would be a “walk the walk” kind of moment.

Now, I don’t really expect it to happen. For one thing, I’d be surprised to see Weingarten give up her secure perch, hefty paycheck, and national platform for a pay cut and a tenure of uncertain duration. For another, as I said up top, de Blasio is eyeballing a raft of terrific candidates. And there is all the usual palace intrigue of Big Apple politics, amped up by a mayor steeped in hard-left advocacy and committed to unwinding much of the Bloomberg legacy. But we’ll see.

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