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Henry J. Stern

Henry J. Stern

Posted: November 15, 2010 06:55 PM

The prospect for the granting of a waiver to Cathie Black so she can serve as New York City's school chancellor may have dimmed a bit in the last two days.

For one thing, the New York Times reported today, in an article by Winnie Hu, that the man who will decide whether to grant the waiver, State Education Commissioner David M. Steiner, "will convene a screening panel consisting of representatives of the State Education Department and educational organizations to make a recommendation to Dr. Steiner." The commissioner's spokesman "would not speculate on how long that would take."

For another, two of Chancellor Joel Klein's deputies have announced their resignations, and others are expected to leave as well. One reason cited in favor of Ms. Black was that the Klein management team would be available to assist her as she familiarized herself with the educational universe.

No truly independent screening panel of educators is likely to conclude that no experience whatsoever in their professional field is adequate preparation for the most difficult and complex job in local public education. If they felt that way, they would be expressing the view that their own professional qualifications had little value, and that any corporate executive could fill the positions they now hold.

This does not mean that Ms. Black will not receive the necessary waiver. The Commissioner and his screening panel may be responsive to the wishes of a higher authority. Mayor Bloomberg wants the waiver, and carloads of movers and shakers will be influenced by his wishes. There is a strong argument that, since the law provides for mayoral control, and the first element of control is selecting the head of the enterprise, this appointment is his call, regardless of whom he may choose, assuming that the nominee is literate and not a felon.

There are also many people who believe that some schools are ungovernable, and some children ineducable, and that giving the mayor a free ride on the chancellorship would make it easier to fix the blame on him if a less than satisfactory outcome results.

Mayor Bloomberg has previously shown his distaste for technical, legal standards. When Patricia Lancaster resigned as Commissioner of Buildings in 2008, the law required that the Commissioner of the department be an architect or engineer. The mayor's choice, Deputy Commissioner Robert LiMandri, was neither. He solved that problem by having the City Council pass a local law repealing the requirement. Mr. LiMandri is now the Commissioner and he is well-regarded.

Since the news from the Buildings Department is usually limited to collapsing cranes or bribe-taking employees, it is certainly arguable that his real estate background is as valuable as one in architecture would be. One may still wonder: is there not one architect or engineer in the City of New York who would also do a first-rate job of overseeing the Department of Buildings? The answer to that question depends on how wide one casts the net.

The Schools Chancellor's position is one that is a target for year-round assault by various groups. The politically correct term for them is "stakeholders"; the pejorative description, "special interests." Public officials begin with a modest reserve of good will, which is depleted over time as group after group is dissatisfied because their particular demands are not being met.

Ambitious politicians boast about their concern for education; photographs of children decorate their mailers. Some of these friends of education, however, do not go so far as actually voting for additional funds, or giving the Chancellor the power to manage the system.

In view of these hazards and obstacles, it could be said that the Chancellor, an official whose importance is comparable to that of the police commissioner, should be a person of impeccable and undisputed credentials, a Horace Mann of the 21st century, if such a person could be found and persuaded to take the job. To select a chancellor with no background whatsoever in education is certainly a daring leap of faith.

It is true that Mayor Bloomberg himself, a successful business executive, had no experience in government before he was first elected mayor in 2001. Since he has basically been a good mayor (he was re-elected twice, has generally appointed and removed commissioners on the merits, has run a scandal-free administration, and innovated on public health and environmental issues), it is understandable for him to believe that others who have achieved great success in business can use their talents to succeed in the public sector.

A perennial problem in the field of education is credentialism. Schools for teachers award degrees routinely, and school boards may require those degrees as qualifications for being hired. It is too often the case that possession of a degree has little relationship to ability to teach in a classroom. But even those who reject credentialism may support minimal standards for people who hold important positions in educational administration. Credentials may not have intrinsic value, but they do provide a veneer of protection for the qualified and unqualified alike.

The Mayor weighed in on the controversy this afternoon, as Simon McCormack of The Huffington Post notes. The headline: "Bloomberg Defends Against Cathie Black Criticism," by Simon McCormack. In response to the critics of his choice, the Mayor said, "It just goes to show they have no understanding whatsoever of what the job is. This is a management job."

These troubling questions remain: How will the proposed chancellor, skilled as she may be, decide on priorities, programs, personnel and budget allocations without personal expertise and knowledge of the basic subject matter she will oversee? How many of the expert professional team said to have been assembled will stay? What will she do if the experts disagree? On what basis will she make critical choices?

Will the members of the screening committee exercise independent judgment? Will the Mayor's wishes be dispositive? Does Speaker Sheldon Silver, a friend and patron of Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the state Board of Regents, have a discreet opinion on the matter?

The elusive qualities of managerial judgment and the ability to lead and inspire may be present in Cathie Black. If she gets the waiver, she will have the opportunity to demonstrate them. But will her skills be sufficient to improve educational outcomes for over a million children?

 

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