Diane Ravitch: The Education of Lord Bloomberg

Roundup: Historians' Take

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her most recent book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. (November 2010)

April 7, 2011 was a day that should be remembered as one of the strangest in the history of the public schools of New York City and New York State. On that day, by coincidence (or not), the Chancellor of the New York City schools, Cathleen Black, and the State Commissioner of Education, David Steiner, both resigned. Black was replaced by longtime city official Dennis Walcott; a successor for Steiner, who will leave by August, has not been named. Hopefully, there will be a national search. Black’s tenure of three months was certainly the shortest ever in the history of the city’s schools. For his part, Steiner lasted less than two years in a job in which his predecessors typically persisted for a decade. The reasons for Black’s sudden departure are obvious; we will have to wait a bit longer to get the inside story about Steiner’s equally abrupt exit, though his handling of Black’s appointment may have undermined him.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last November that he had selected publishing executive Black to be chancellor of the school system, he described her as a “superstar manager,” just the person needed to oversee a sprawling organization that enrolls 1.1 million children. Critics were immediately outraged that there had been no public search for a successor to Chancellor Joel Klein, and even more upset that Ms. Black met none of the legal requirements for the job. State law is very specific in describing the experience, education, and certification necessary to become a superintendent. Black had never taught, never worked in a public school, never been a principal, held no degrees in education, and obviously did not have a superintendent’s certificate. But the law did permit a waiver for a candidate whose unusual experience was equivalent to the legal requirements, and Mayor Bloomberg dismissed the criticisms of Black. The business community, reliable allies of the mayor, issued a statement of support, asserting that “You would be hard-pressed to find a more qualified and more capable candidate than Cathie Black.” Black also won the endorsement of Gloria Steinem, Oprah, Michelle Rhee, and other luminaries.

But parent groups organized rallies and threatened lawsuits, trying to block her appointment. The mayor, still unmoved, went through the obligatory step of appealing for a waiver, which State Commissioner David Steiner had the power to grant. This was not a simple matter, given the sustained and noisy opposition to Black, and the widely held perception that the mayor had selected someone who was a social friend, a member of the city’s moneyed elite lacking any experience in education. Parent groups felt that the mayor was sticking his thumb in their eyes by choosing yet another chancellor who would disregard their views and favor charter schools over those attended by 97 percent of the city’s children....

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