By Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times | http://lat.ms/fE9Bqy
Cathie Black, chancellor of New York's schools, is joined by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg during a visit to a school in the Bronx. Behind them is Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott. (Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press / November 30, 2010)
December 7, 2010, 6:12 p.m. | Reporting from New York — At first, Cathie Black, the newly appointed chancellor of New York's public schools, stuck out like a homecoming queen who'd been assigned to take over the math club.
She appeared as glossy as the Hearst magazine empire she long ran — camera-ready, exquisitely dressed and well-spoken. She was just what New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg thought he needed to further repair the nation's largest public school system. The only problem: She hasn't a whiff of education experience.
That has blown up into an unexpected firestorm not just over the quality of this city's schools — which aren't as repaired as many had hoped they would be by now — but over the essence of Bloomberg's style after taking command of the 1.1-million-student system eight years ago. It also has revived debate on whether mayors and other non-educators can be a remedy for ailing schools.
"It's the culmination and apotheosis of all the worst parts of mayoral control," said Leonie Haimson, a longtime activist for smaller class size who is part of a movement to stop Black's appointment. "In the end it's one man who doesn't listen to anybody and makes decision based on whim. Would Bloomberg put a non-doctor to head the health department or someone with no experience to run the police? I don't think so."
Black succeeds another non-educator, Joel Klein, an aggressive Washington prosecutor the mayor handpicked in 2002 as his first chancellor.
At her first public appearance last week, at two schools in Queens, Black, 66, showed up in a high-style camel coat more fitting for a fashion show than discussing a purple dog with schoolchildren. She also gave her first post-appointment interview to a tabloid newspaper gossip columnist, to whom she gushed, "I've already had an hour-and-a-half meeting with Joel Klein. He and I may be different people, but with eight deputies in the department, I'll get up to speed quickly."
On Sunday she granted a second interview, firing back at her and the mayor's critics.
"I believe that one of the reasons that the mayor wanted somebody with a different set of skills is that we need to think differently," she told the local ABC affiliate. "It's tough times out there."
Bloomberg, a self-made billionaire who had never been in politics before he ran for mayor, said the sheer size of the $23-billion system and looming budget cuts necessitated a skilled manager such as Black. He prevailed with this appointment, but only after the state education commissioner pressured him to name a "chief academic officer" whose wide-ranging job description left many wondering what would be left for Black to do.
Whether it is banning trans fats or adding bike lanes in Times Square, this mayor has pioneered new approaches to stubborn problems. But few urban dilemmas are more troubling than children who aren't learning.
Mayors began to seize control of public schools from elected boards in the early 1990s, after decades of instability in districts rife with corruption and incompetence. Boston was first, in 1992, followed by Chicago and Cleveland. In 2002, the state Legislature gave Bloomberg exclusive control over the public schools, once ruled by an independent board of education and superintendent. He took over everything, from the budget to the curriculum to selection of the chancellor.
Not every city has made a similar or a smooth transition to this new approach to school governance.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sought to wrest control from the elected school board but was rebuffed by the courts. Mayor Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C., lost his reelection bid this year, in part because of his school chancellor's impolitic approach to reform.
Few attempts at school restructuring, however, have been as radical as the one tried by Bloomberg and Klein.
Over eight years, they closed 91 schools and opened about 400 new ones, most of them small, autonomous or run by private charter school companies. They also empowered principals and held them and teachers accountable for student achievement, and attempted to tie it to bonuses and tenure.
Community school boards and their bureaucracies were virtually eliminated, along with about 1,600 teaching positions. As many as 10,000 non-classroom professionals were brought in, many to work directly for the administration, headquartered in the historic Tweed Courthouse across from City Hall.
Klein and Bloomberg became known for innovation — but also for barreling past doubters. In one instance, the mayor promptly ousted two school board members after they resisted his team's approach to ending social promotion.
After winning reelection to a third term last year, Bloomberg touted a "historic" surge in student scores on state tests, crediting his ambitious overhaul. But in August, the state Department of Education revealed those scores had been significantly inflated by state officials, who had also made the tests so easy that students could pass some parts simply by picking random answers on multiple-choice questions. At a Bronx elementary school, the recalibration prompted a literal flipping of results — from 81% of third-graders meeting math standards to 18%.
Though few parents pine for the days when they had to navigate 32 district bureaucracies, polls show that many New Yorkers are not quite comfortable with one man and his minions holding so much power.
Ernest A. Logan, president of the principals union, said he, like most New Yorkers, agreed the mayor should run the system, but had in mind a more collaborative model. Although Logan praised Klein for his "honesty and accessibility," he said educators were frustrated that for all the chaos and accountability demands, New York students — particularly blacks and Latinos, who dominate the system — have not made greater strides.
"They had money and resources," Logan said, noting that the budget has climbed about $1 billion a year during the Bloomberg years. "I would have thought we'd have been much better at closing the gap."
But Eva Moskowitz, a former New York City Council member now running a charter school company, said the mayor couldn't be expected to fix everything, and praised him for taking on the challenge and enabling transparency. She noted that parents now can go online to find out everything about local schools, from test scores to the arts budget.
"When you judge the mayor and mayoral control you have to understand this is a beast of a system," said Moskowitz, who has talked of running for mayor someday. "It's like running a small country."
During the three years left in Bloomberg's term, Black will face many thorny problems, including the achievement gap between minority and white students, and the reality that two-thirds of pupils read below grade level in one out of every four schools. The teachers union contract has also expired.
Although Black lacks experience in education, one of her strong suits is said to be as a listener.
"Even if she pretends to listen, that'll be an improvement," said Marilyn Katz, a Bronx parent who attended an emotionally charged rally Thursday night on the steps of the Tweed Courthouse protesting Black's appointment. "I just can't believe Bloomberg couldn't find somebody, anybody, who'd spent time in a public school to run the place."
Her critics also note that like Klein and Bloomberg, Black sent her children to private schools and lives on the tony Upper East Side. Of course, none of that matters because Bloomberg has made up his mind. She is his choice.
"There will be one person in charge," Bloomberg said shortly after she won state approval. "Make no mistake about that."