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Why Cathie Black?

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Say what?

Joel Klein, New York City's schools chancellor, is quitting to go to work for Rupert Murdoch - to help him put the News Corp. empire "in the education marketplace."

And to replace him, Mayor Bloomberg has tapped Cathie Black, who is best known as the former publisher of USA Today. She currently runs Hearst Magazines, which publishes periodicals like Cosmopolitan, Seventeen and Good Housekeeping.

Whew.

Let's take this piece by piece.

Not surprising that Klein left. He's already been chancellor for eight years, a city record. In fact by New York standards, Klein is a veritable lifer.

Stunning that he's off to work for Murdoch. Maybe after eight years on a $250,000-a-year salary, Klein thinks he's due some real money. It's not the kind of life choice you'd make into a Hallmark movie, but whatever.

How did he do? Okay but not as great as he thinks. Klein and Bloomberg were proud of the fact that he came from the world of corporate law and the Justice Department, not the education establishment. They regarded said establishment as a nation of hacks and Klein, in particular, made little secret of his impatience with the old order. He'd get a D in diplomacy - that's a grade, not an initial.

But he did shake up a system badly in need of shaking. Public schools are by their very nature sanctuaries - not just for the kids but for the employees, too. Everybody, from the teachers to the administrators to the incredibly expensive custodians, tends to nestle in. Imposing change is incredibly hard, especially when it has to be filtered through more than 1,400 schools, 80,000 teachers and a million-plus students.

Klein streamlined the management, getting rid of the patronage-heavy community district offices - the relic of another shaking-up demanded by reformers of long ago. He gave principals more control over their staff and their budgets, closed failing schools and made it easier to create charter school alternatives.

He was obsessed by tests - not surprising when you're trying to hold schools accountable and you need hard data on achievement. For a while that, too, looked like a triumph. By 2009 the scores were soaring and over 80 percent of all students were meeting state standards in math - a revolution in a city that was used to celebrating when half the public school kids met the standards in anything.

But this year the state, under the assumption that the tests had become too predictable, changed and toughened the questions. The scores plummeted. Now it seems as if students' improvement in the Klein era was far more modest, and that the racial achievement gap has not really been bridged all that much after all.

And to get even to the place where he got - higher graduation rates, academic achievement inching forward - he spent a ton of money.

You'd think that Bloomberg would be looking for something different, but Black seems like a more tactful version of the Klein model. At her introductory press conference she sent out a shout to all the New York teachers but admitted she had "limited exposure" to unions.

The state legislature gave Bloomberg control over the city schools reluctantly, and under the assumption that he wouldn't run them like a high-handed dictator, a la Rudy Giuliani. This is a big decision that looks pretty arbitrary. While God knows the state legislature couldn't be expected to do it better, Bloomberg owes it to the city to answer a lot of questions about why he picked Black.

Granted, he doesn't want anyone from the education establishment, but couldn't he find someone from education? Or from New York? Every part of New York's government is and always will be a political jungle, and all things being equal, you would want a chancellor who knows all the players and the rules. Black moved here from Connecticut a while back, and since then she's become part of the city's social and corporate elite, but that's a far cry from the public school universe.

And of course - this goes without saying in New York - her kids went to private schools. Is it never, ever going to be possible to put someone in charge of the city's schools who has at least some history with them?

Obviously, she's had a great career in the world of publishing, but the world of publishing is worlds away from the world she's being delegated to run now. Of course it would be good to have a woman in this job, but there are a whole lot of smart, tough, qualified women - a world full of them, far too many to make Black's gender an argument for her selection.

What's the point? What's the rationale? What was he thinking?

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