A Waiver That Seems Larger Than the Law

By Gabe Pressman
|  Monday, Nov 29, 2010  |  Updated 8:00 PM EDT
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A Waiver That Seems Larger Than the Law

Hearst/Getty Images

Hearst Chairman Cathie Black is in as NYC Schools Chancellor and Joel Klein is out.

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It’s getting to be a habit.

Every time the Mayor appoints a new Schools Chancellor, he asks Albany to waive the law -- that is, virtually ignore it -- for the sake of getting us the best person possible.

He got a waiver for Joel Klein, who has run the schools for nine years. And, when his choice to replace Klein, Cathie Black, a publishing executive, didn’t have the qualifications, Mayor Bloomberg and the state education commissioner, David Steiner, engineered a deal. She would appoint a deputy with strong educational credentials and she’d get a waiver too.

It’s as though state law exists just to be flouted. There is an old song that contains the line: "Whatever Lola want, Lola gets." And that seems to be the continuing story at City Hall. No law is strong enough to contain the wishes of the mayor, whether it’s on term limits or the qualifications of the person who runs our schools. Whatever the boss wants, he gets.

Under the deal reached with New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner, Black will have as her Number One deputy a man with much more education experience, Shael Polakow-Suransky.

Is there a danger then of having the education department run by a two-headed monster, Black and Polakow-Suransky?

The Mayor says: "There will be one person in charge. Make no mistake about that."

Asked what his reaction was when a panel appointed by Commissioner Steiner originally rejected his choice of Black. Bloomberg replied tartly: "What was I supposed to do? Jump up and down? Government doesn’t work that way. We don’t have a visceral reaction where you hire some cheerleaders to come in and yell siss boom bah. No. Or the reverse."

After the panel voted against Black, Steiner proposed the compromise with Bloomberg: appointing a Number Two to Black with strong educational credentials.

As he granted the waiver, Steiner had high praise for Ms. Black’s management credentials. In her 40-year career in publishing Steiner said: "Ms. Black has demonstrated superb leadership, vision and managerial skills…"

Steiner conceded that Ms. Black’s record of managing a large enterprise gave her substantial experience in "managing limited resources and making difficult financial decisions" but he said Ms. Black would have to rely on her staff to guide her on major educational policies.

Diane Ravitch, an education scholar, author and critic, was skeptical. She told me: "The state law is very clear and Bloomberg has basically nullified the law. He has put himself in the ridiculous position of again appointing someone without teaching experience or the graduate education required in the law."

City Hall touts what happened as a victory for their way of doing things. But several parent leaders vehemently disagree.

You can almost feel sorry for Ms. Black. She comes from an environment within the magazine world where she was the boss. Now she stands ready to begin her work in the schools at a time when there is rising skepticism by parents and teachers about what the bosses want and how they are going about getting it.

The schools need leadership. But a giant or giantess of the business world is not necessarily the best person to bring better education to our kids.

Both Ms. Black and her prime deputy, Polakow-Suransky, should make one of their first orders of business to reach out to the parents of 1.1 million school children. For nearly a decade, these mothers and fathers have been left out of the educational process.

Education is a team effort and the new chancellor won’t succeed unless she makes parents and teachers an integral part of her team.

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