NEW YORK – Heads of enormous city school systems are used to getting more grief than love. These are tough and often terrible jobs that chew up educators and spit them out. They rarely end well.
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho could have had his storybook ending on Thursday, when he almost stepped down amid lavish rounds of applause and public affection, all of it live-streamed.
Carvalho could have taken a bow and departed in triumph for the nation’s highest-profile school leadership post: heading the 1.2 million-student, largely poor and minority New York City public school system. Instead, he changed his mind, leaving Mayor Bill de Blasio and his staff in New York stunned and angered while he accepted bon mots and applause from his own board in Miami.
We never got to hear about Carvalho’s vision for New York. That’s because the prolonged search to replace Carmen Fariña was conducted in secret and news of the appointment leaked out before a contract had actually been signed.
So instead of announcing his departure, Carvalho instead allowed Miami to show him love. So much love that he couldn’t possibly leave, or so he said after three dramatic, televised hours of public affection.
When he finally said he would stay, Carvalho drew on the emotional last few weeks after the horrific school shooting in Florida. He spoke against arming teachers and in favor of having them love, lead and inspire, and then said he simply could not leave Miami.
“I underestimated the emotional tug, the level of commitment, the power that crying members of the community had on me,” Carvalho said. The crowd erupted in cheers, as he clearly anticipated they would.
And instead of reveling in his choice of a high-profile and highly successful superintendent whom he’d praised as “the best person to lead the nation’s largest school system into the future,” de Blasio was left embarrassed and surprised, with his disgusted press secretary Eric Phillips tweeting: “Who would ever hire this guy again? Who would ever vote for him?”
By the time Carvalho’s self-serving announcement that he was staying finally came, it was clear he had put his own ego and need to be loved first – a dangerous position for an educator at a time when public education in our country is under attack and the Trump administration is pushing vouchers and choice.
When in doubt, school leaders generally revert to a standard cliché, and Carvalho did, too: “Now is the time for the agenda to be the agenda of kids, not something else,” he said. “Now is the time for us to put children first, to really put children first.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to mayoral politics and choosing chancellors, that has rarely been the case in New York City, despite the enormous problems that beset the country’s largest school system: huge achievement gaps, constant battles over failing schools, overcrowding and charter relocation, among others.
Fariña stood out by talking about finding joy in learning, and her departure wasn’t a surprise: she’d come out of retirement to take the job.
Overall, though, New York history has taught us some tough lessons about a job so impossible that former chancellor Ramon Cortines famously quipped that even Jesus Christ couldn’t run the system.
That was back in the mid-90s, before mayoral choice, and before Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s choice of Joel Klein stayed as chancellor for an unprecedented eight years, the longest tenure in history. (He, too, used the overdone “Children First” phrase repeatedly).
After Klein, Cathleen Black, a top executive with Hearst Magazines, lasted just 95 days; she came to the job with no education experience and had a knack for putting her foot in her mouth.
Former Chancellor Joseph Fernandez – who also came from Miami –didn’t get much love either. He, too, was fired by a divided Board of Education in battles over sex education, way back in 1993; he, too, spoke about running schools “for children and parents.”
And both Cortines and Rudy Crew crossed paths with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; Cortines quit twice (the first time, he agreed to come back) while Crew was essentially fired by a divided Board of Education.
At the time, a former aide to Crew noted that he might have stayed if he’d had support and assurances that he would be treated right. The assurances never came.
“Rudy Crew is a guy who really needs love,” his former aide, Chiara Coletti, said at the time.
Carvalho burned bridges in New York City, so I’ll be watching closely to see how long the love he needed and spoke of so fawningly on Thursday lasts. Meanwhile, the search in New York City goes on.