Gotham Gazette

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The New Chancellor

Having won control over the city school system, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has vowed that his success in improving the city schools should be the measure of his mayoralty. When asked what specific policies would be employed to produce such improvement, Bloomberg had so far deferred to his then-unnamed schools chancellor. A new chancellor has now been appointed, but answers to that question will have to wait a little longer.

On July 29th, Mayor Bloomberg announced that he would entrust his top-priority mission to Joel I. Klein, chairman and chief executive of Bertelsmann Inc., part of one of the world's largest media companies. The first city schools chancellor appointed directly by the mayor is a New York City native, and a graduate of the city's public schools, who even did a brief, long-ago teaching stint in the city school system. But Joel Klein is best known as the tough, savvy federal prosecutor who went head to head with Microsoft and other corporate interests as chief of the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division during the Clinton administration--a Beltway insider well connected on both sides of the aisle.

Klein says he feels a great debt to the city schools for the preparation he received there. He was born in the Bronx, attended PS 205 in Brooklyn, and graduated from William C. Bryant High School in Queens. He currently lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. In accepting the chancellor's appointment, Klein said, "I am a product of these schools and I love what my public education did for me...for me, the opportunity to work in this endeavor is really the most exciting opportunity."

Klein's selection to run the nation's largest school system came as a surprise to everyone. His name was not among the many that circulated, a list that included high-profile corporate CEOs, school system heads from other large cities, and former city officials. Since the announcement, parents, educators, advocates and others have been scouring newspaper accounts, press releases, and biographies of Mr. Klein for clues as to how and how well he will manage the 1,200 schools, 80,000 teachers, and 1.1 million students that make up the city public school system. Klein's experience is impressive but sheds little light on what his appointment means for our schools.

By all accounts, Klein is a very smart guy. Equally often, he's said to be a scrapper, someone who doesn't back off from a fight. He is known for his ability to forge alliances to get the job done, as well as for marshalling public opinion when it serves the cause. These talents will surely be put to the test in his new job.

Klein is said to enjoy the limelight and to handle the press well. We'll see. It'll be an uphill battle to keep the press in his corner in this job; the New York media has been notoriously ill disposed toward city schools chancellors. Besides, Mayor Bloomberg has expressed a strong preference that his appointees to the Panel for Educational Policy, the 13-member advisory panel that replaced the Board of Education, stay out of the papers, and he may ask the same of his chancellor.

Opinions about Klein's qualifications for the chancellor's job are predictably mixed. Many believe Klein is an excellent choice thanks to his intellect, his team-building, managerial, and problem-solving skills, and his experience understanding large, complex organizations. Others worry about his lack of any significant background in education. Klein also has been described by some who know him well as "liberal to the core." This sets off warning bells for those who interpret this to mean that Klein will not have the stomach to take on the unions, nor to make the systemic changes the school system needs to work. For everyone, the next weeks will be telling.

Educators, advocates, policymakers, and parents will be looking for signs of real change in the team Klein assembles. They will be looking to see what sort of educational expertise he brings in, and how much he relies on the education experts in the mayor's office. They will also be watching the relationships he develops with the school system's traditional seats of power to see to what extent he is comfortable with the status quo. As one teacher said, "Since he's not an educator, everyone will be fighting for his ear to control his educational pronouncements."

Because Klein is not an educator, the state education commissioner, Richard Mills, and the Board of Regents must grant him a waiver from the education administration credentials required for the chancellor's job before he can take office. As chancellor, Klein will have unprecedented power to run the system. Under the new state legislation, he assumes the powers of the Board of Education and has direct authority over the district superintendents and 32 community school districts.

With the new structure in place, it should become clear that management and accountability issues matter, but so do educational ones: The city needs experienced, well-supported teachers and talented principals throughout the school system, not just clustered in the schools that already work. It needs schools with the power and the means to employ the proven practices and programs that their own students need -- not one-size-fits-all mandates from above. It needs to allow meaningful roles for parents in the schools -- not just the chance for us to vent. It needs a functional process by which to create new schools and close dysfunctional ones. And it needs sufficient funding to do all these things.

The public education landscape in the city has changed, but, so far, only superficially. Yes, 110 Livingston Street will soon be just another address. But when the Tweed Courthouse becomes the seat of city education policy, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have a lot of work to do there to create substantial change to ensure that the city schools provide the city's children with the education they deserve and on which their futures depend.

Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.

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