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That Was the Week That Was

Dear Deborah,

What an amazing week in New York City! I was babysitting my 4-year-old grandson on Nov. 9, when my cell phone starting ringing as reporters called to say that Joel Klein was stepping down as chancellor of the city's public schools. At first, I didn't believe it, because I had heard the rumor many times in the past. But this time, it was real. Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced at a press conference that Klein was leaving after eight years in office and would be replaced by a prominent business leader.

The mayor decided to replace Klein with Cathleen Black, the chairman of the Hearst Corporation. Unfortunately, Ms. Black has no education experience, but the mayor saw that as a plus. What he wanted was a manager, and education experience was not important.

I decided to write a blog about the history of the New York City superintendency, rather than join the chorus of people applauding or condemning the mayor's choice. Although the mayor believes that Klein served longer than any superintendent in the city's history, this is not accurate: Three served longer, one for 20 years, one for 11 years, and a third for 10 years. You can read the history here. The most startling fact is that New York City had five superintendents in the first half of the 20th century, and 18 superintendents in the second half!

Mayoral control, which was enacted by the New York state legislature in 2002, brought stability, but at a price. The price was that executive decisions are made without any democratic process. The central board became a rubber stamp for predetermined decisions. The voice of the public is routinely ignored. Last year, when thousands of parents and teachers appeared at a public hearing to oppose the closing of 19 schools, the acquiescent board listened impassively for hours, then voted at 3 a.m. (with only a single dissent, by the brave Patrick Sullivan, a public school parent and the Manhattan representative) to close them all. This year, the mayor will close more than 50 more schools, and he will again disregard any objections or protests. That's what mayoral control means in New York City. The public schools belong to the mayor. They are his, and he has no reason to heed anyone else's views.

That explains why he selected Cathleen Black to be the next chancellor. Ms. Black has been a very successful manager in the publishing world, but she has none of the educational credentials or teaching experience required by state law to become a school superintendent. Nor does she have the "exceptional training and experience" that would qualify her for a waiver from the formal requirements. None of this matters. The mayor wants her, and unless state Commissioner of Education David Steiner decides to take state law into account, she will be the next chancellor.

Parents and elected officials have been signing petitions (two parent petitions had collected more than 10,000 names as of this morning), holding press conferences, and doing whatever they can to rally opposition to the appointment of Ms. Black. If past experience is any guide, the mayor will ignore them, and he will have his way.

I feel sorry for Cathleen Black. This is a woman of great accomplishment in the business world. No doubt she is accustomed to receiving honors and accolades, not brickbats and ridicule. I wonder if she knows what she is getting herself into.

The mayor's selection of Black, and Klein before her, is part of a growing trend to turn education—at every level—over to non-professionals. An article in Crain's reports that nearly half the 28 superintendencies in big-city districts this year were awarded to graduates of the Broad Academy, which specializes in training outsiders. In the article, the executive director of the Broad Center said that the leader of a symphony orchestra doesn't have to be a concert violinist. This is true, if she meant to refer to the business manager of the orchestra. But the conductor of the orchestra (the person who "runs" it) must know how to read music and must know quite a lot about each of the instruments and how to bring them together to produce a beautiful sound. Without that skill set, the symphony will just be noise.

Diane

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