Of Widgets and Children and Cathie Black

By Gabe Pressman
|  Wednesday, Nov 24, 2010  |  Updated 6:30 PM EDT
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Of Widgets and Children and Cathie Black

AP

Cathie Black during a news conference at City Hall in New York, Tuesday Nov. 9, 2010.

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The beauty of the American system of government is that it is based on the idea of checks and balances. 

In a real sense that’s what happened with the Mayor’s choice for a new chancellor.

He conducted a secret search [he may have been the only person aware of it] to find the right person. Then he chose Cathie Black, a magazine executive, for the job. Members of his own staff were unaware of the choice until almost the last minute.

It turned out Ms. Black had virtually no experience in education. Her own children went to boarding school. And becoming the CEO of Hearst Magazines may mark a great achievement in the media world -- but it has little to do with education.

Under state law, because she lacked educational qualifications, Ms. Black needed a waiver from the state education commissioner, David Steiner.  An advisory panel appointed by Steiner rejected the Mayor’s choice but Steiner said he might give his approval if there were a kind of co-chancellor appointed who would oversee the educational needs of the city’s 1.1 million school children.

Steiner’s idea, if accepted, might precipitate a chaotic situation. Supposing the education chancellor and the managerial chancellor would disagree? It is hard to imagine two presumably competent, strong executives in perfect harmony all the time.

Welcome to New York, Dr. Steiner. This is a town where nothing happens easily. And now you’re right in the middle of what is becoming a ferocious debate.

According to the Quinnipiac Poll, 47 percent of New Yorkers disapprove of Black and only 29 percent approve of the Mayor’s selection. Sixty-four percent of parents with children in public schools believe that education experience is more important than management experience for the person running the schools.

The Mayor commented: “This is not a popularity contest.” And he added that the state should abolish the law requiring all state school chiefs to have at least three  years’ experience in schools and hold a professional certificate in educational leadership.

Michael Bloomberg was a highly successful businessman. It is easy to see why he puts such heavy emphasis on management skills. He doesn’t want to be second-guessed -- ever. But he is not the sole authority.

David Diaz, distinguished lecturer in media and politics at City College, tells me: “It’s two in a row.  Two chancellor appointees requiring waivers. I read a letter to the editor from a principal saying he knew nothing about business and, therefore, he might make an excellent CEO of a financial institution. It was a joke but it certainly applies to the logic in this situation.

“Our children are not widgets. They’re not even magazines. They’re kids. The whole process reflects again that Michael Bloomberg is a very arrogant man. Not even consulting his own staff. Government by fiat.” 

A parent leader, Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, says, if Steiner’s idea of two chancellors is adopted it would be “a huge mistake. A majority of New Yorkers are against Black and they want an educator at the head of the system.”

Bloomberg is not used to hearing the word “No.”

That he wants to be known as the mayor who revolutionized the educational system is  understandable -- and laudable.

Yet Dick Dadey of Citizens Union told me that the Mayor may have meant well but “he didn’t build support for his choice. Educational credentials are as important as being a good manager.”

From Dadey’s lips to Bloomberg’s ears! And let’s hope that, in the future, not only educators and business tycoons will be consulted but that the parents and teachers are brought into the process too. To leave them on the sidelines is wrong.

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