U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and at least one other Education Department official urged New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and his team not to choose Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr as the city’s next schools chancellor, according to several people knowledgable about the selection process. It was an unusual move by the nation’s top education official and came in the wake of Starr’s vocal criticism of some of the Obama administration’s school reform policies.
Starr, who has led Montgomery County schools since July 2011, was a finalist in de Blasio’s two-month search for a superintendent to lead the nation’s largest school system, and people familiar with the search said he might have been offered the job had Carmen Farina, a 70-year-old veteran educator and longtime adviser, not come out of retirement for it. Starr was offered the No. 2 spot in the department, with the understanding that he would become chancellor within a few years, but he declined it, according to several people familiar with details of the search who spoke anonymously because of its political sensitivity.
Duncan spoke negatively about Starr to de Blasio in a discussion about a number of candidates, people familiar with the discussions said. Duncan did not return phone calls seeking comment. Duncan spokesman Massie Ritsch, asked about Duncan’s conversations about the chancellorship and his objections to Starr, said he “declined to comment on private conversations between the mayor and secretary.”
“Secretary Duncan looks forward to working with Mayor de Blasio, Chancellor Farina and their team,” Ritsch said in a statement. “He wants to do whatever he can to support continued progress for students in New York City.”
Several people familiar with the New York selection process said that Jim Shelton, the assistant deputy secretary of education for innovation and improvement, also expressed to de Blasio’s team that he opposed Starr, although he was not speaking for the department or for Duncan. Shelton, asked about his comments, said in an e-mail that he did have conversations about the chancellor selection process, but Shelton did not answer specific questions relating to Starr.
“I have a number of decades old relationships in New York and when asked by friends and former colleagues I shared my personal impressions on the unique demands of the Chancellor role and at times specific candidates,” Shelton wrote. “I am excited to work with and support Carmen Farina, whose prior experience working in New York will surely be an advantage as she takes the helm of one of the country’s most complex and diverse school systems.”
De Blasio could not be reached for comment.
It is unclear whether Duncan’s views had any effect on the outcome of de Blasio’s search, but it is unusual for a U.S. education secretary to get involved in the selection of a district school superintendent.
Outrageous, but not a surprise coming from the heavy-handed Obama administration.
What this episode means is that the White House, the USDOE and education reformers at large are worried that New York City might lead the charge to move away from test-centric Obama/Duncan/Gates-style reforms and are going to do everything in their power to make sure it doesn't happen.