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The Battle Over Public Schools Moves to Center Stage in New York City as New Leader Challenges Privatization Agenda

Carmen Fariña brings experience to a wide set of urgent policy questions -- but what will that mean for NYC schools?

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The populist poetry of Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s campaign has officially entered prose mode with his appointment of Carmen Fariña as chancellor.

Fariña is a longtime educator who was a teacher, principal, superintendent, and instructional chief during her four-decade career in the city schools. After a seven-year retirement, she returns as chancellor to confront the pressing policy issues that face the nation’s largest school system.

Her appointment came with a pledge of a “progressive agenda” but few details about her positions on specific policy issues. Yet in the coming months, Fariña will have to bring her extensive experience to bear on thorny terrain that includes union contracts, charter schools, universal pre-kindergarten, struggling schools, curriculum, and much more.

Below, we run through a few of the education conundrums de Blasio and Fariña must confront — and some answers they might consider — as they begin the messy work of governing.

How should the city provide universal pre-K?

De Blasio’s central campaign pledge —  to fund full-day pre-kindergarten for all New York City children by taxing the city’s highest earners — is both tricky and ambitious.

On the funding front, de Blasio must either convince Republican legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign off on his proposal to raise income taxes for the city’s top earners, or figure out another way to generate $530 million over five years to pay for the pre-K expansion.

Fariña will likely leave the negotiations to de Blasio’s political staff. But if the money comes through, she’ll play a major role in figuring out how to provide full-day preschool to about 50,000 additional four-year-olds. Where will they go? Who will teach them? And what will they learn?

Fariña was already proposing space solutions months ago, suggesting at a public forum that real estate developers be required to build early childhood education centers that would also serve as community centers for middle school students. Underused city school buildings, out-of-use Catholic schools, public-housing community centers, and local nonprofits could also all potentially host the new pre-K seats.

Fariña’s résumé suggests that she would pay close attention to the quality of the instruction offered by the new programs. But while there are successful early childhood programs that could be mined for curriculum, finding and training people to staff the programs could be a steep challenge, in part because pre-K teacher pay  can lag nearly $19,000 behind that of a starting kindergarten teacher.

Setting up the sites and hiring the teachers so that the expansion starts by next September, as de Blasio has promised, will not be easy.

“Realistically, getting that done in a year strikes me as extremely optimistic,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas.

How should the city work with the teachers union?

Sources say Fariña was not the top choice for some in the United Federation of Teachers, which did not endorse de Blasio in the primary election. But Fariña’s experience as an educator earned her quick support from the city’s teachers and principals unions, and her remarks today indicated that she is serious about showing respect for the work that educators do.

Whether that tonal shift will translate into material gains for city teachers remains to be seen. After years of bitter clashing with the Bloomberg administration, the UFT hopes to win retroactive pay raises and other desired contract terms in talks with de Blasio and Fariña. Raises for the UFT and the principals union, which have gone for years without contracts, could amount to more than $3 billion.

Again, the financial picture is likely to remain mostly in City Hall’s purview. And de Blasio has said full retroactive pay for all municipal unions won’t happen, that any retroactive pay must be offset by cost savings, and that the UFT’s snub of him in the primary means he is not beholden to the union.