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The Chancellor's Midterm Exam

Joel Klein is:
♦ the most effective school chancellor in the past several decades.
♦ a pawn in Mayor Bloomberg’s game.
♦ the loser in a battle with the teachers union.
♦ a man who dreams of being mayor.
♦ all of the above.

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At about 1:30 on October 3, three of the city’s most powerful politicians stage an improbable love-in for the cameras in the Blue Room at City Hall. Standing at the podium is Mayor Michael Bloomberg, wearing a dark suit, a crisp white shirt, and a shit-eating grin. Next to him is Randi Weingarten, head of the United Federation of Teachers, and behind her is Chancellor Joel Klein, overseer of the public schools. For the past two years, Klein and Weingarten have waged a savage battle over a new contract for her members, in which he has painted the union as a truculent obstacle to reform, while she has acidly accused him of “demonizing” teachers.

But that was then and this is now: A settlement has been reached. Bloomberg lavishly praises Weingarten. Weingarten lauds the mayor. And then, amid the flying bouquets, Klein steps up to speak. Klein recalls that a few weeks earlier, he and Weingarten had embraced onstage (without much enthusiasm) at an event for new teachers, after which she quipped that it would be the last time until a contract was in place. Turning now to Weingarten, Klein declares theatrically, “You owe me a hug!”—then lunges for her like Bela Lugosi at his most vampiric. Weingarten freezes, mortified, but maintains her composure. She swallows hard and wraps one arm limply around his back.

The instant-analysis media verdict is that the deal is a “win-win.” By avoiding a teachers’ strike and making it unthinkable that the UFT would endorse Fernando Ferrer, Bloomberg has vaulted over one of the few remaining hurdles to his reelection. For Weingarten, too, the deal smells like victory: a 15 percent pay hike over four years in exchange for ten extra minutes of teaching per day and modest alterations to the contract’s work rules.

Yet, as the City Hall tableau illustrates, there aren’t just two parties here—the relationship governing the schools is a ménage à trois. And whether the deal is a win for Klein is a murkier matter.

How much murkier becomes apparent within hours, as all sides begin spinning madly. When a blog item portrays Klein as the loser in the negotiations—the inveterate hard-liner at the table, he pressed for radical changes such as the evisceration of teacher tenure—Klein phones the blogger and pronounces the pact a “breakthrough” on his issues. Weingarten’s people, naturally, are peddling a contrary line: Klein was soundly, humiliatingly trounced by the union. “Joel pinned a lot of his second-term agenda on reforms he didn’t get,” a Weingarten ally postulates to me. “I can’t image he’ll still be around come 2009.”

Three years ago, when Klein became chancellor, many of his friends were incredulous that anyone would want the gig in the first place. “I don’t know if I considered it crazy,” says litigator David Boies. “But I certainly thought the job was impossible.” In the 36 years since New York’s last great experiment in public education, decentralization, the nexus of politics and policy around the schools had become a toxic zone: sclerotic, venomous, venal, and corrupt in equal measure. No wonder that since the sixties, the average chancellor’s tenure has been a paltry two and a half years.

Klein’s stay has already been longer than that, despite his emergence as arguably the most polarizing chancellor in memory. Idealistic and calculating, impatient and impolitic, Klein, 59, has pursued reforms as sweeping as any ever attempted in a major urban school system. In the process, he has won a legion of ardent fans, especially in the corporate and philanthropic spheres. Former GE CEO Jack Welch tells me, “I think he’s one of the great Americans.” Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons concurs. “His skill set and intellect are just what the system needed,” he says.

But Klein has also pissed off a lot of people on both the left and the right. A lifelong Democrat, he has challenged his party’s hoary orthodoxies and extended a defiant middle finger to its traditional union allies. Many teachers see his management style as disrespectful and even dictatorial. (Among his critics on the Web, he is sometimes referred to, charmingly, as “Herr Klein.”)

And yet there’s no disputing that Klein has proved a substantial asset to the mayor. There’s also no denying that he loves the job and everything that goes with it: the challenges, the celebrity, the policy wonkery, even (or perhaps especially) the bare-knuckle conflict. “I honestly believe that I’ve trained for this job my entire life,” Klein tells me more than once. “It really lights my fire.” He adamantly insists that he intends to serve another four-plus years.

To succeed, he’ll need to. Despite Bloomberg’s crowing on the campaign trail, it’s too soon to have conclusive evidence that Klein’s reforms are working. With 1.1 million students, 83,000 teachers, and a $15 billion budget, the New York system is so large and dysfunctional that turning it around could never be pulled off in less than a decade. The signs of progress are encouraging, but they are tentative, infinitely fragile. The next four years will determine if they’re for real or a mirage—and also what the future holds for Klein in New York City.


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