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The Chancellor's Midterm Exam

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From top, Klein's uninvited kiss of Randi Weingarten at a press conference announcing the new contract; Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam announcing her decision to step down in 2004.  

It’s the first day of classes, September 8, and Klein has just spent the past several hours riding shotgun with Bloomberg. At schools in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens, he has hovered discreetly, often mutely, as his boss has made speeches and mugged for the cameras with an assortment of props . . . er, children. (“How old do you think the mayor is? Fifty-two? Close. Thirty-six? I like you better!”)

But now Bloomberg is gone and so are the reporters, and Klein is in the cafeteria at P.S. 50 in Spanish Harlem, watching a dozen cute black kids in white polo shirts sing and dance in a show of back-to-school spirit. When the kids are through, Klein leaps to his feet, hugs them one by one. (Never has New York seen a huggier political figure than Klein.) Then he grabs my arm and drags me around the building, introducing me to the principal, whom he personally recruited, stopping to chat with parents in the hallway. “What was this place like before?” he asks. “Oh, it was awful,” one mother replies. “And now?” “It’s so much better—thank you!” And with that, Klein, having bagged his moose, wheels and heads for the door.

As we walk to his chauffeur-driven Town Car, I mention that Klein seems to have more fun when Bloomberg is not around. “It’s different,” he says in his soft Queens mumble. “What am I gonna do? He’s my meal ticket.”

Exactly how that came to be has always been something of a mystery. When Bloomberg named Klein chancellor in July 2002, the two men barely knew each other. And Klein’s résumé featured just one entry related to education: a four-month spell in 1969 teaching sixth-grade math in Queens. To be sure, Klein, the son of a postman, was raised in Bensonhurst and Astoria and educated in the public schools (before going on to Columbia and Harvard Law School). But he was now a Washington fixture: a top-flight litigator who rose to become deputy White House counsel and then head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, where he had waged the historic lawsuit that tried to break up Microsoft. Only recently had he returned to the city to run the U.S. operations of the German media giant Bertelsmann.

Klein’s assault on Microsoft looms large in the imaginations of his critics in the education Establishment. “I watched what he did with Microsoft, and it’s no different here,” Weingarten tells me. “The way he treats me is just like the way he vilified Bill Gates.”

I first met Klein during the Microsoft trial, about which I wrote a book, and the truth is that the parallel is more subtle and complicated. Far from approaching the software titan hellbent on dismembering it, Klein proceeded cautiously, forever looking to cut a deal. “Joel only became evangelical once we’d been through the trial and had a factual basis for it,” says Boies, Klein’s hired gun on the case. “The difference with the schools is that the factual record has been built for two decades. It’s not a question of knowing the facts, but of whether you’re prepared to face up to them.”

Similarly, Klein’s time at Bertelsmann, his sole stint in business, scarcely qualifies him for the corporate-tool portrayal favored by his opponents. He seemed a fish out of water in the boardroom, marginal and bored. “I don’t think Joel liked the private sector,” says Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York City. “His interest was always public policy and public service.”

What the Microsoft case and the Bertelsmann job demonstrated most clearly was Klein’s comfort with inexperience. Klein had no background in antitrust law when he took over the antitrust division, nor was he technologically fluent. And he had no expertise in media when he entered the media industry. So for Klein, the absence of an education pedigree stood as no barrier to putting himself forward as a potential chancellor. He’d long felt a “passion” about education, he says, and indebted to the “phenomenal teachers” who schooled him in his youth. “When I got to Columbia, the dean said, you should shoot to graduate in the middle of your class; you come from poverty, you didn’t go to Andover or Exeter,” he says. “But my teachers didn’t prepare me to graduate in the middle of the class.” He graduated magna cum laude.

Education hadn’t been a centerpiece of Bloomberg’s first campaign, but by the summer of 2002, he had embraced the issue. With the acquiescence of the teachers union (in return for a new contract with pay increases of 16 to 22 percent), Bloomberg convinced the State Legislature to abolish the 160-year-old Board of Education, which he derided as “a rinky-dink candy store,” and give him control of the schools. With that control came the unfettered ability to hire and fire the chancellor.


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