The education reform movement has taken some heavy blows recently. Washington, D.C. lost its excellent schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, the reform movement’s poster child, after her employer, Mayor Adrian Fenty, failed to win a second term—in part because teachers’ unions, unhappy with Rhee, shelled out $1 million to defeat the incumbent. Then, Republicans touting local control of schools swept to victory in the midterm elections, guaranteeing that President Obama’s education agenda—from Race to the Top to reauthorizing No Child Left Behind—will likely face strong opposition.
The most recent blow, however, was different: It was self-inflicted, avoidable, and embarrassing. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a reform advocate, announced in early November that he was appointing publishing executive Cathleen Black to head the city’s schools. The media and education establishment were shocked: Bloomberg hadn’t announced he was looking for a new schools chief—and, worse, Black had virtually no prior experience in education. She’d been a trustee at two universities and had some business-lecturing experience—but that was about it. According to The New York Times, around the time of her appointment, city officials had to spend several hours briefing Black on education issues, and she had yet to attend a meeting of a charter school advisory board that she had only recently joined.
Bloomberg vehemently defended his pick, insisting that business chops are what you need to run a school district with a $23 billion budget, 135,000 employees, and roughly one million students. In his letter to the state education commissioner asking for a waiver so that Black could take the job—required because she doesn’t have certification or training in education—Bloomberg argued that Black’s record as the chair of Hearst Magazines and as a member of several corporate boards proved that she could “expertly manage and allocate resources,” “build strong relationships with colleagues,” and “[seek] out the opinions of customers.” Black was eventually granted a waiver, but only after Bloomberg agreed that someone with significant education experience would be appointed as her deputy.
In response, several retired teachers staged a protest outside Hearst’s offices, attempting to apply for Black’s old job. But they, like Bloomberg, were missing the point. Choosing a teacher to lead New York’s schools wouldn’t necessarily be much of an improvement. Finding a schools chief shouldn’t mean making a choice between educational experience (which a teacher has) and leadership experience (which Black has). The person selected to lead the nation’s largest school district should have both.
There were plenty of such people to choose from. The education reform movement has been gaining steam, and, in the process, has developed an impressive roster of leaders: Michelle Rhee, Baltimore schools chief Andrés Alonso, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, and Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada, to name a few. Eight years ago, when Bloomberg selected current schools chancellor Joel Klein, the ranks of these reformers were thinner. And so, if you wanted a reformer—someone who wasn’t going to be a pushover for the teachers’ union and an enabler of the status quo—selecting a leader with little education experience was a more defensible move. (Indeed, Klein, like Black, needed a waiver from the state—although it bears mentioning that, unlike Black, he had studied education and taught math in Queens before starting a career in law and business.) Now, however, circumstances have changed. A robust education reform movement dedicated to upending the old ways of doing business has existed for years and continues to grow. Bloomberg could easily have picked one of its leading lights.
Many observers have decried the mayor’s decision for smacking of elitism. Actually, to us, Black’s appointment smacks eerily of anti-elitism—namely, the anti-elitism championed by Sarah Palin that is now enjoying a resurgence in American life. More than any ideological worldview, the chief cause of the former Alaska governor is the belief that intellectual and even policy knowledge matters little in government—and, in fact, is an impediment to good leadership. Bloomberg’s dismissive attitude toward the idea that a schools chief needs to have a background in education represents similar thinking. It is anti-elitist in the worst possible way: It is contemptuous of knowledge. True education reform deserves the support of thoughtful people. But true education reform this is not.
This article ran in the December 30, 2010, issue of the magazine.