Cathie Black Is Bloomberg’s New Jolt to the School System

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Photo: Joe Kohen/WireImage

Michael Bloomberg, from his very first campaign for mayor, has said he wants to be judged first on whether he could improve the city's public schools. Eight years into the tumultuous revolution, with about three years left on his watch, Bloomberg today took a bold step toward shoring up his education legacy by replacing schools chancellor Joel Klein with publishing executive Cathie Black. It's the kind of move Bloomberg loves: Springing a tightly held secret sure to rile traditionalists. Whether Black has the skills or the time to make any real progress is almost beside the point. The mayor vowed to reenergize his team for the third term, and now he's providing an unexpected jolt to an education system he believes needs constant shock treatment.

Certainly Klein is leaving on a down note. He and the mayor can point to important gains: increased teacher and principal accountability, a wave of innovative new schools, higher high school graduation rates, and a decrease in the disparity between white and non-white student performance. But Klein's signature, a mania for testing and data, has lately taken a beating: The state's education department has shown that rising reading and math scores were the result of easier tests rather than greater aptitude. Even Klein has been handing out an increasing number of "F's" to failing schools. And while Klein may have eliminated "social promotion" from the school system, Bloomberg-administration insiders had long wearied of the chancellor's energetic self-promotion. "Joel had hit a wall," one associate of both men says. "And the mayor's education legacy was getting lost in Joel's personality."

Black arrives just as the city is due to receive millions in "Race to the Top" federal money, and Bloomberg wants much of it spent on charter schools, whose growth has been a point of raw contention with the teachers union, at the same time the union and the city are negotiating a new contract. Yet hammering out those fine points won't be Black's primary responsibility, and the mayor's explanation today at a City Hall press conference that he hired Black because she knows about "jobs, jobs, jobs" seemed off the mark as well. Black is a tough and slick saleswoman; her greatest assets, from Bloomberg's perspective, are her background in marketing and her charisma. "This is about a charm offensive," says one mayoral intimate. "Cathie represents the opportunity to build consensus with all the players, and to win back all the people Joel has alienated."

Klein is now off to work with Rupert Murdoch at News Corp., part of the revolving door between media and the chancellor's office. (When New York asked Murdoch to name the most important living New Yorker earlier this fall, he named Klein.) Before taking on the New York City school system, Klein was an executive with German media conglomerate Bertelsmann, and before that a longtime Justice Department official.

Perversely enough, Klein's greatest accomplishment can't be measured in the cascade of numbers that he generated. He and Bloomberg made the broader city community care about the public schools again, and shook the pervasive complacency and hopelessness out of the system. That he replaced those with equal parts hope and fear is why many parents and educators won't miss him, but it's also why Bloomberg's educational legacy will still be the most important thing the mayor leaves behind.