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.