Shelley Mayer has championed education issues throughout her legislative career, which began in the Assembly in 2012. There she fought for more funding for students with disabilities and the Yonkers school district. Since her election to the state Senate in 2018, she’s muscled through some of the new Democratic majority’s top priorities, like decoupling teacher evaluations from standardized tests. Now she’s at the forefront of the debate over the state’s school funding formula.
The 2020 Education Power 100: 6-50
The 2020 Education Power 100: 6-50
A veteran special education teacher and an assemblyman since 2005, Bronx native Michael Benedetto stepped into the powerful role of Education Committee chairman in 2019. For the Democrats, he’s an obvious leader, as he’s closely aligned with teachers unions on issues like charter schools and teacher evaluations. Benedetto appears ready for battle – he’s introduced a bundle of bills that would restrict public dollars to charters, limit their growth and amp up oversight.
John Liu is a college professor, finance expert and longtime public servant. The first Asian American to win legislative office in New York, he was elected to the state Senate in 2018. As an alum of the Bronx High School of Science, one of the city’s specialized schools, Liu has been a fierce defender of the specialized high school admissions test, after a de Blasio proposal to scrap it in 2019 kicked off a divisive debate.
Brooklyn-based City Councilman Mark Treyger is known as an untiring advocate for Gotham residents on the affordable housing and environmental resilience fronts. Tapped to chair the Committee on Education in 2018, the former public school teacher now oversees the largest portion of the city budget — and his fighting spirit is intact. He’s secured tens of millions of dollars for school upgrades, classroom supplies, social workers and school breakfasts.
When Kriner Cash arrived in Buffalo in 2015, half of the district’s schools were seriously underperforming and the teachers union contract was years overdue for a renewal. As the seventh superintendent in six years, Cash, who describes himself as a “children’s rights activist,” had an uphill battle. Under his leadership the district of 34,000 students has made huge strides. Graduation rates and student test scores are up, and its finances have improved.
A veteran educator in the state’s fourth-largest school district, Edwin Quezada has worked his way up the ranks since 1998. Appointed superintendent in 2016, the award-winning educator has overseen steadily rising high school graduation rates and drawn admiration for launching Yonkers’ My Brother’s Keeper, a mentoring program for young men of color. But he’s also faced complaints from parents during a long struggle to secure state funding to repair the district’s crumbling, aging schools.
Terry Dade is new to Western New York but familiar with the complex needs of a large, urban school district like RCSD. The New Leaders for New Schools-trained educator, who took over in July, came up under former Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and most recently was assistant superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. Dade made a difficult call on more than 150 teacher layoffs in order to fix a massive budget deficit.
Jaime Alicea started as a teaching assistant and over three decades has worked at every level of the Syracuse City School District, the smallest of the state’s “Big 5” districts. Since becoming superintendent in 2017, he’s prioritized building a more robust culture of parent engagement as one strategy to boost students’ academic performance. He also initiated a program to connect students and families with support services if they’ve been victims or witnesses of traumatic events.
In January, Robert Schneider succeeded New York State School Boards Association Executive Director Timothy Kremer, who retired after 21 years. Previously the organization’s associate executive director, chief operating officer and director of finance, Schneider worked closely with Kremer and deeply understands the state’s education finance landscape. That’s critical, because he is now the voice in Albany for the 5,200 individual board members who represent more than 675 public school districts throughout the state.
Advocate, agitator, ideologue, revolutionary. All apply to Eva Moskowitz, the founder of Success Academy Charter Schools, and one of the most controversial figures in modern-day education politics. A former teacher and chairwoman of the New York City Council Education Committee, Moskowitz’s pedagogical expertise, political acumen and backing from wealthy donors have spurred the rapid growth of her high-performing schools network, and as Chalkbeat put it, enabled her to “lead an educational revolution from the outside.”
Parent advocate Leonie Haimson has rallied families and railed against education bureaucracy for over two decades in dogged pursuit of smaller class sizes for public schools. And as co-founder of the national Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, she was instrumental in shutting down InBloom, a state education department contractor accused of shadily collecting student data. If New York attempts to weaken its student data privacy protections, Haimson will be ready.
James Merriman brings wide-ranging experience to his role as CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, where he’s worked since 2007. He helped develop the Walton Family Foundation’s charter sector grantmaking program and was instrumental in designing statewide charter authorizations at the Charter Schools Institute of the State University of New York. Known for his measured commentary on a polarizing topic, Merriman is an authoritative voice for strengthening and growing high-quality charter schools.
As chairman of an entity that controls charter school openings and closings throughout New York state, Joseph Belluck is a gatekeeper in a contentious sphere of supporters demanding more charter schools and their union-supported opponents. A personal injury attorney by trade, Belluck is unafraid to take risks: In a bid to grow the charter school teaching force, he supported an alternative teacher certification program that was later blocked by a court.
A tireless crusader for equitable education funding, Robert Jackson has a track record of working as a school board member and city councilman supporting Pre-K expansion in New York City, fighting to preserve teaching jobs and starting a drop-out prevention program. As lead plaintiff in the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit against the state, Jackson won city schools a huge funding boost. His fight for fairness continues, now as a member of the Senate.
When the state budget drops, Bob Lowry is a go-to guy for education reporters, providing insight on what the numbers mean for schools in his role as deputy director for the New York State Council of School Superintendents. He honed his policy chops during his long career in Albany, including as assistant secretary for education and the arts under former Gov. Mario Cuomo, school aid analyst with the state Assembly and NYSUT policy wonk.
Policymaker and philanthropist Merryl Tisch is a household name in education circles. Her long tenure on the Board of Regents includes a tumultuous few years as chancellor, from 2009 to 2016, as Common Core was introduced, abruptly raising expectations for students and teachers. Tisch defended the changes (not the rushed rollout) as ultimately helping prepare students to succeed. Now chairwoman of the State University of New York, she’s sought to lift the charter school cap.
Whether at the front of a classroom, in a courtroom, or on the front lines of a teachers strike, Randi Weingarten is a commanding presence. She leads AFT’s 1.7 million members in their mission to seek “fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, health care and public services” for students, families and communities. In New York, you can bet she’ll be front and center in the discussion to reexamine the state’s graduation requirements.
Education historian and policy analyst Diane Ravitch is a prolific writer and a professor at New York University. A fervent opponent of school privatization and high-stakes testing, she co-founded the advocacy group Network for Public Education in New York to support public schools. Her recent work in that capacity has earned her an unofficial title: “the intellectual godmother of the anti-reform movement.”
Jasmine Gripper took the helm of labor-linked advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education in January, succeeding Billy Easton. Gripper has taught in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and Brooklyn; most recently she was AQE’s legislative director. Working in tandem with advocacy director Zakiyah Ansari, she’s poised to lead the organization into a new chapter. Expect AQE to “deepen its commitment to education justice and racial justice,” per a recent press release.
David Niederman, a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi, considers criticism of the educational quality of New York’s yeshivas – amid the city’s recent probe – to be “a smear campaign against our community and what it stands for.” Niederman sits on the executive committee of Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools. Considered close with Mayor Bill de Blasio, he is a staunch defender of religious freedom and an outspoken advocate for limiting government oversight of private schools.
The quality of secular education provided by private religious schools has emerged as an important, impassioned and very political school policy debate. Naftuli Moster, who found himself unprepared to enter college after studying mostly religious texts at Brooklyn yeshivas, is the self-appointed poster boy of the burgeoning movement, led by his advocacy group, to hold nonpublic schools to a higher standard. His watchdog work has pushed city and state officials to act.
Michael Deegan was named superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York in September 2019. It’s the biggest role yet for Deegan, a Bronx native and lifelong Catholic schools educator who’s spent most of his career working with children and college students in Westchester and New York City. With the 62,000-student school system facing historic low enrollment, he plans to lead aggressive recruitment efforts, expand special education and prioritize STEM subjects.
David Little brings wide-ranging experience to his job as executive director of the Rural Schools Association: he’s served as government relations chief at the state school boards association, legal counsel to the state Legislature, a county legislator and a school board member. His current challenge is making sure lawmakers are tuned in to the needs of rural schools as they grapple with declining enrollment and fewer jobs for graduates.
Shael Polakow-Suransky became president of Bank Street College of Education in 2014. Under his leadership, the esteemed school for teachers is expanding its work with K-12 public schools and child care centers; it partnered with the DOE to coach teachers on a new pre-K math curriculum. Previously, Polakow-Suransky was deputy chancellor at the city Department of Education during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, where he pushed for more rigorous testing.
There’s nary an education issue that David Bloomfield isn’t equipped to expound on, as his students at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center – and journalists working the New York schools beat – know well. Bloomfield’s insight on important debates over school diversity, yeshiva education and funding equity are backed by his experience in the nonprofit and local government sectors, as well as in the field as a professor, middle school teacher and lawyer.
Award-winning journalist and MacArthur Grant recipient Nikole Hannah-Jones – “The Beyoncé of Journalism,” per her Twitter bio – has driven the national conversation on civil rights, educational inequity and school segregation with her fearless reporting for outlets like ProPublica, The Oregonian and, currently, The New York Times Magazine, where she’s been a staff writer since 2015. Brooklyn-based, Iowa-born Hannah-Jones’ latest endeavor, “The 1619 Project,” aims to reexamine the legacy of slavery in the U.S.
No one on the education beat is a sharper – or more effective – thorn in the side of city officials than Eliza Shapiro. She made a name for herself covering New York City Hall and education at Politico and now writes for The New York Times. With a shrewd understanding of how big money informs policy, she scrutinizes the de Blasio administration’s schools agenda and has shed light on the city’s homeless student crisis.
A veteran teacher and Board of Education member at Jamestown Public Schools, Nina Karbacka represents 234,000 students in her role as president of the New York State Association of Small City School Districts. At hearings before lawmakers in Albany, she’s been an essential advocate for full distribution of state education aid to small city districts – which in many cases are saddled with low property wealth, significant family poverty and high student need.
As executive director at the New York State Association of Independent Schools, Mark Lauria represents nearly 200 independent schools, both secular and religious, and 83,000 students. In 2019, his group sued the state education department in an attempt to block efforts to expand oversight of nonpublic schools. The oversight plan was the state’s response to critics of some ultra-Orthodox yeshivas who alleged the religious schools failed to teach sufficient math, science and English.
Dan Weisberg, a former New York City Department of Education official who brokered deals with the UFT, is CEO of the reform-oriented education advocacy group TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project). During his tenure, the group has published reports on teacher quality and professional development that have shaped reforms in many states, including New York. Recently Weisberg oversaw the organization's 2018 report, “The Opportunity Myth,” which reveals how students nationwide are failed by their schools.
Mark Cannizzaro began his career as a physical education teacher in Staten Island, moved on to administrative roles and eventually worked his way up to the top position at the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. He represents more than 6,100 in-service union members. With negotiations over a new contract with the city underway, Cannizzaro is pushing the Department of Education to better support members navigating new school discipline policies.
Kevin Casey has been a vocal representative for 8,000 school administrators during his long tenure as executive director of the School Administrators Association of New York State. Under his leadership, the organization joined other education groups in suing former Gov. David Paterson in 2009 over state education aid withholdings. This year he’s urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to fund “critical need areas including student mental health, special education, English as a new language, and school safety.”
Billionaire cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder dove into the divisive debate over the fate of the admissions exam to New York City’s most selective public high schools last spring, launching a campaign to preserve the test – in direct opposition to Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza. With Kirsten John Foy (a staffer under then-Public Advocate de Blasio) heading the board, the Education Equity Campaign is poised to be a player in education debates.
Under Vartan Gregorian’s leadership since 1997, Carnegie Corporation of New York has zeroed in on K-12 and higher education initiatives. In 2018, it awarded $3 million to the Charter School Growth Fund, which in turn backs charter schools enrolling nearly 500,000 students in 28 states. With Gregorian at the helm, the grantmaking foundation is supporting important education research and investigative journalism with annual grants to Chalkbeat, Educators for Excellence and other organizations.
Thomas Lee controls the second-largest public retirement system in the state and one of the nation’s 10 biggest public pension funds, with more than 430,000 members and a value of $121.8 billion as of October. The pension system seems poised for a busy 2020: it’s seeking a consultant to help craft position statements on “environmental, social and governance issues” including climate change, firearms and private prisons, per a recent request for proposals.
East Ramapo was a school system in crisis – financially, academically and culturally – when Deborah Wortham took the helm in 2015. The first woman and person of color to become superintendent, Wortham rose to the monumental challenge of steering the divided district back on track. Working with state monitors, she and the school board, currently led by Harry Grossman, have implemented an array of policy changes. The results, including student proficiency gains, are promising.
After years of covering education and real estate at DNAinfo and elsewhere, Amy Zimmer became bureau chief of Chalkbeat New York in fall 2019, bringing beat reporting and investigative chops to the nonprofit education news site. Zimmer has a steady hand on the wheel as Chalkbeat New York reporters cover school integration efforts in Brooklyn and Queens, as well as a recent debate over alleged discriminatory language written into public school dress codes.
In the contest for most widely traveled New York City schools expert, Laura Zingmond wins in a heartbeat. As senior editor at InsideSchools, she’s logged thousands of hours visiting and reviewing schools throughout the five boroughs. Her work fuels a school-rankings website relied upon by parents, educators, policymakers and journalists. Zingmond and her two children are products of the city’s public schools, and she’s served on the New York City Panel for Educational Policy.
Mark Dunetz is president of New Visions for Public Schools, “an innovation lab” within the city’s public school system that serves 46,000 students. New Visions operates a charter high school network and a teacher prep program. A career educator, Dunetz is responsible for launching data-driven projects like an open-source high school curriculum. He serves on the boards of the New York City Charter School Center and the Research Alliance for New York City Schools.
Jenny Sedlis (formerly of Success Academy Charter Schools) runs a reliably pro-charter, anti-teachers union advocacy group that sports a well-funded political action committee, New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany. Both were instrumental in getting charter-friendly Republicans elected to the state Senate in 2016. With Democrats currently controlling both houses of the state Legislature and a New York City mayoral election on the horizon, it’s a safe bet that Sedlis is quietly mobilizing the next crop of charter-friendly candidates.
Child welfare expert Anne Williams-Isom has spent the last 11 years leading data-driven growth at Harlem Children’s Zone, which serves 28,000 students ranging from infants to young adults and operates the Promise Academy charter schools network. Williams-Isom led efforts to strengthen post-graduation support services for Promise Academy alumni to help them get through college. Previously she was deputy commissioner for community and government affairs at the New York City Administration for Children’s Services.
As president and CEO of the Edwin Gould Foundation since 2008, Cynthia Rivera Weissblum has championed grant-making and advocacy focused on education inequity. She oversees an accelerator program for education-related nonprofits working to improve college outcomes for low-income students. During her tenure, the foundation has also homed in on education journalism, supporting news outlets like the Hechinger Report as well as the Education Writers Association, a membership organization for education journalists.
At The Education Trust-New York, Ian Rosenblum leads an “equity agenda to eliminate the gaps in equity, opportunity, and achievement that hold back too many students from reaching their full potential.” In 2019, he supervised the launch of an interactive data tool showing college persistence and completion outcomes for New York high school graduates. His education policy resume includes a previous role as deputy secretary for education and economic opportunity to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Strategic and well-traveled, Joel Mangan honed his executive leadership skills during a varied career at IBM. His newest role, as of May 2019, is steering IBM’s major education initiative, the P-TECH network, as the program’s footprint expands in New York and internationally. Mangan oversees the six-year school model that fuses high school, college and workforce training in STEM fields to help capable yet underprivileged students succeed in a competitive economy.
David Coleman controls the New York-based education giant that administers the SAT. A leadership restructuring in 2019 moved former Chief Operating Officer Jeremy Singer into the new role of president, expanding his purview to all day-to-day management. They have their work cut out for them as they aim to make the SAT more accessible to low-income students without repeating recent missteps – like the problematic “adversity score” – even as some colleges have soured on standardized tests.