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.
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.
Bloomberg considered a long list of candidates for the job. “I actually remember going through my entire phone directory,” he tells me one day at City Hall. Some of the names he contemplated were predictable, such as Chicago schools superintendent Paul Valles. But others apparently weren’t. “Bloomberg’s first choice was Ray Kelly,” NYU education historian Diane Ravitch says. “He told me he was trying to get Kelly to do it, but then he realized he needed him more for the police.” Weingarten, meanwhile, claims that Bloomberg offered her the job one night over dinner. “He asked me to do it,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I’m sure you’re joking.’ ”
I ask Bloomberg about the Kelly story. “Never in a million years,” he scoffs. “Ray wouldn’t have any interest, and I don’t think he’s right for that job—I’m his biggest fan, but no!” About Weingarten, though, he issues a non-denial denial. “I’m not knocking Randi, but if you want an outsider to change [the system], she would not be the person … And it was obvious to me that you had to have an outsider. You needed somebody who was willing to shake things up.”
“Bloomberg’s first choice was Ray Kelly,” Diane Ravitch says. “He asked me to do it,” Randi Weingarten claims. (She says Bloomberg offered her the job one night over dinner.)
After Bloomberg heard about Klein’s interest from mutual friends, an hour-long meeting was arranged at the mayor’s home over Memorial Day weekend. “Mike and I are similar in our analytic approach,” Klein says. “We look for management solutions.” Bloomberg agrees. “There’s lots of experts in education who don’t like that Klein is not a professional educator,” he explains. “But this is not a lightweight when it comes to academics, so the fact that he didn’t take a few education courses—he’s taught before, and he can read the books like everybody else can.”
In choosing Klein, however, Bloomberg was taking a hell of a gamble. On the day he gained control of the system, the mayor had baldly proclaimed, “I will make the schools better. I want to be held accountable for the results, and I will be.” Now he was entrusting the fulfillment of that pledge to a virtual stranger—and one who was inevitably going to raise some hackles.
The Bloomberg-Klein era in education began with an emblematic flourish. Since 1925, the old Board of Education headquarters had been housed in a Soviet-style structure at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn. Bloomberg ordered that the newly christened Department of Education be located in the Tweed Courthouse, just behind City Hall. As Daily News education reporter Joe Williams writes in his new book, Cheating Our Kids, the move was “symbolic and practical: The mayor need only walk a few yards to take his chancellor to the proverbial woodshed.”
Ensconced inside Tweed with a senior team composed almost entirely of non-educators, Klein turned to Big Philanthropy to help finance his retooling of the system. He amassed a heaping pile of dough, including $51 million from (of all places) the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and millions more from local capitalists. Tapping such sources was for Klein a matter of principle. “Generally the rich don’t have a stake in public education,” says Leslie Koch, head of the Fund for Public Schools. “We wanted to change that.” But Klein’s pursuit was also born of necessity. “Joel called and said, ‘I’ve got a big problem,’ ” billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad tells me. “He said, ‘I got thousands of employees, but I don’t know what they do. And there’s no way to use public funds to figure it out.’ ”
Flush with cash, Klein hired an army of consultants to plot his reform agenda. Soon they uncorked a flurry of initiatives under the rubric Children First. There was a plan to streamline the bureaucracy, replacing the city’s 32 community school districts with ten regional authorities. A plan to open 50 charter schools over the next five years. A plan to phase out abysmally performing large high schools and launch 150 smaller ones. And a plan to establish the Leadership Academy, a privately funded training program for aspiring principals. To help, Klein sought out some A-list pals: Welch became chair of the academy’s advisory board, Parsons the vice-chair. Klein also enlisted Caroline Kennedy to keep the dollars rolling in. (Since 2002, some $275 million in private money has been sunk into the public schools.)
In January 2003, Klein announced that for the first time, the city would adopt a uniform curriculum in reading and math. Implementing it would fall to Diana Lam, Klein’s choice as his deputy for academics. A career educator who had run the school systems in Dubuque, San Antonio, and Providence, Lam had a national reputation as a sparkplug who had nudged up test scores everywhere she went. She was also a magnet for political controversy and a proponent of “constructivist” pedagogy—an approach long championed by Teachers College, in which rote instruction is downplayed in favor of letting students, working alone or in small groups, “construct” their own understanding.
With its corporate-tinged approach to management and progressive educational slant, Children First contained something for everyone to hate—and inevitably, they did. Conservative academics such as Ravitch and the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern assailed the new core curriculum for being light on phonics and heavy on fuzzy math. So did researchers from around the country, pointing to reams of evidence that a highly structured, heavily scripted approach to reading has proved more effective, especially for students of average or lower socioeconomic status. Klein’s people retorted that such “drill and kill” techniques would dull the appetite for learning; also, that it was “offensive to say that middle-class kids can learn one way but lower-class kids have to learn a different way,” as one official put it to me.
Teachers, meanwhile, complained less about the curriculum than about the DOE’s heavy-handedness: about a top-down regime in which everything that took place in the classroom—from the duration of lessons to the size of the “reading rugs”—was specified by the new Tweed bosses. And liberals took umbrage at the panoply of moguls around the Leadership Academy and at Klein’s taste for the social swirl.
The unions moaned about much of this, too, but their laments were more visceral. After decentralization, the teachers and the principals unions had stepped into the power vacuum created by a hopelessly balkanized system and had come to play a central role in education policy. Now Klein was shutting them out, concocting his schemes behind closed doors. Weingarten, a lawyer who fancies herself a reformer and not an old-line labor hack, was enraged by his refusal to treat her as an equal. “The chancellor decided we were the enemy, not a partner,” she says. “That was when the relationship started to rupture.”
Relations were equally rocky with Jill Levy, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. Levy objected to the Leadership Academy, which she saw as a breeding ground for “brainwashed” anti-union principals. Railing against Klein as an “opportunist” who was “delusional” to boot, she nevertheless reserves her harshest words for Bloomberg. “I had to scrounge for a meeting with him, and then he didn’t shut his mouth for 45 minutes,” she says. “He sat there in his pressed shirt and his unruffled demeanor, dictating to me how the schools should be run … I wanted to puke on his shoes.”
Over dinner one night in Tribeca, Klein and I discuss the harsh reception that greeted his maneuvers. Besuited and vaguely rabbinical, with a shiny bald pate and a caramel Hamptons tan, he speaks quickly—and offers no apologies. On criticisms of the curriculum: “You got a couple of pundits, like Ravitch, who knows nothing, she’s never educated anyone. That’s the same rap you can put on me, but now I’ve spent a lot of time on this, and I think my initial instinct was correct: There is no magic curriculum.” On the insularity of his deliberations: “You can’t do reform by plebiscite; it leads to the politics of paralysis.” On micromanagement: “I’ll admit that we have people who implemented things in a ham-handed way. But we’re trying to change practice. [Klein deputy] Carmen Fariña had the best quote: When somebody said, ‘Let teachers teach,’ Carmen said in the New York Times, we tried that—it doesn’t work. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t somebody somewhere who said that the size of the rugs matters. And that person is an idiot.”
I ask if Klein realized that by attaching boldface names such as Kennedy and Welch to his agenda, he was courting controversy.
“I wanted it!” he says. “I knew that if I weren’t making a lot of waves that I was basically tinkering, that I was being an incrementalist, and I didn’t want to be an incrementalist.”
Whatever the merits of Klein’s approach—of not merely breaking eggs to make an omelet but flinging them at the old guard—the resentments he’d unleashed reached critical mass in March 2004. A few weeks earlier, at Klein’s urging, Bloomberg had announced the new policy of halting “social promotion” of third-graders who failed to score above the bottom level on citywide math and reading exams. To get the policy approved by the Panel for Educational Policy, Bloomberg had to fire a pair of his own handpicked appointees who objected to it—a gambit instantly dubbed by the tabloids the “Monday Night Massacre.” That same month, a nepotism scandal arose around Diana Lam, who was nailed for having tried to secure a job under her auspices for her husband. After an internal investigation and a stubborn attempt by Klein to save her, Lam was forced to resign.
In the wake of the twin fiascos, the administration was floundering. As 2004 rolled into 2005, public support for Bloomberg on education was mired at 34 percent; for Klein, it was even lower. And then, to everyone’s surprise, the wind began to shift.
The new breeze started blowing in early June, when Bloomberg and Klein announced the results of this year’s citywide tests for third-, fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders. (Fourth- and eighth-graders are tested by the state.) For the first time since 1991, at least half of the city’s elementary and middle-school students performed at or above grade level. In math, the percentage rose 7.5 points, to 50 percent, while in reading, it leapt fourteen points, to 55 percent.
And the news kept getting better. In September, the results of the state math test showed a nine-point bump, to 77 percent, among fourth-graders meeting standards—this on top of a ten-point rise, to 59.5 percent, on the fourth-grade reading test. At a packed press conference at a Bed-Stuy school, Bloomberg enjoyed a Ross Perot moment, employing a potpourri of charts and graphs to hammer home his message: “The era when year-in-year-out stagnant levels of classroom performance were the norm are over.”
Many experts view the test scores less ingenuously (or less strategically) than Bloomberg does. Robert Tobias, for example, knows as much about the topic as anyone in the city. Now a professor at NYU, Tobias spent 33 years as an official at the Board of Education, the last thirteen as director of testing. Tobias is at pains to insist that he isn’t an enemy of the administration or its policies; some he likes, some he doesn’t. What worries him is that the significance of the test scores is being distorted by Bloomberg and Klein. “They’ve essentially declared victory,” he says. “Test scores have become the coin of the realm, and that’s problematic to begin with. But these scores in particular don’t prove what they claim.”
Tobias begins by noting that on the statewide tests, the city’s performance more or less tracked the results in other regions around New York. In math, the city has done a bit better; in reading, a bit worse. “Is that evidence that the Bloomberg-Klein policies have resulted in the improvements? Absolutely not,” he says.
Tobias then turns to the city tests, observing first that math scores began rising before Bloomberg took office. “It started when Harold Levy was chancellor and made math a priority,” he says. In reading, though, the story is different: After five straight years of scores being flat, this time they shot the moon. “To a researcher, any anomaly that great looks like an outlier,” he says.
Tobias suspects that other factors besides Klein’s reforms are at work. He points to the fact that test preparation has become borderline obsessive. Exemptions for students not fluent in English have also increased appreciably. Tobias speculates about a screwup in the scoring process—something that occurred more than once during his time at the BOE. Finally, he says, there is “pervasive anecdotal evidence” that this year’s tests were “more child-friendly” because the reading passages were more engaging.
Klein accuses Tobias and other skeptics of missing the forest for the trees. “We have the state tests, city tests, math, reading—and if you look at them, grades three through eight, the orders of magnitude improvement are not explainable by chance,” he says. What about the increases in other parts of the state? “They’ve been working on this, too. It’s not like people everywhere haven’t been focusing.”
Yet Klein admits that the extent of the increases took him by surprise. “I’m not going to hustle you,” Klein adds. “One year’s test scores are not the measure of any reform. If next year we regress to the norm, that tells you all you need to know. But if next year we see the same kinds of results, that tells you all you need to know.”
Bloomberg, of course, already knows everything he needs to know about the test scores: They rendered his road to reelection immeasurably smoother. On the September afternoon of his press conference in Bed-Stuy, a new Quinnipiac University poll showed that public approval of his handling of education had hit 52 percent—its highest level ever. But Bloomberg also got some troubling news that day on the education front: For the first time in the protracted contract tangle with the union, Randi Weingarten was talking strike.
At 48, Weingarten is tiny and birdlike, with sharp features and chestnut hair. A graduate of Cornell and Cardozo School of Law, she became president of the UFT in 1998. By the accounts of both her friends and foes, her position atop the UFT entails a balancing act. Her membership is split between moderates and militants, and in order to maintain her authority, she often finds it necessary to adopt more extreme postures than she might if she were representing only herself. “Randi is a pragmatist, not an ideologue,” says one of her allies. “By instinct, she wants to make a deal.”
The day before the Democratic primary, Weingarten and I meet for lunch near City Hall. In private conversation, she comes across as a savvy operator with a keen political eye. But whether she is speaking on the record or off, her disdain for Klein is withering. “Joel sees teachers as cogs in a factory model, not professionals worthy of respect,” she says. Accusing him of trying to turn the schools into a “paramilitary system,” she contends that “his preferred mode is ‘No, sir! Yes, sir! How high, sir?’ ”
Weingarten believes that Klein is the main reason the contract negotiations have run aground. She believes that he is “anti-union”—his goal is to cripple the UFT. Klein loudly denies it, noting that his father was a member of the National Association of Letter Carriers and that as an attorney in Washington he represented organized labor. But though Klein refrains from criticizing Weingarten personally, he clearly considers the UFT an impediment to fixing the schools. And he makes no bones about regarding the contract he inherited as a disaster.
In force since 2002, but embodying decades of accreted stipulations, the contract is a 204-page tome (with 800 pages of side agreements) so byzantine it might have been written by Justinian. From Klein’s point of view, the main problems with it were these: The contract made it essentially impossible to fire incompetent teachers. It allowed seniority transfers, by which veteran teachers could bump new ones willy-nilly from their jobs. The contract forbade differential pay—higher salaries for better teachers or those in difficult subjects such as math or science. It prevented using carrots to lure talented teachers to low-performing schools or using sticks to keep bad teachers from drifting to them. “Mobility of manpower is the largest issue in education today,” Klein says. “It’s like we’re working in rice paddies—you just can’t move.”
In February 2004, Bloomberg and Klein opened the contract negotiations in incendiary fashion: They proposed tearing up the old magnum opus and replacing it with an eight-page pamphlet that codified Klein’s goals. Predictably, the UFT dismissed the proposal as “an insult.” With Bloomberg’s poll numbers worryingly low, his political advisers counseled him to take a softer line. In September, the administration removed its skeletal contract from the table; in October, Bloomberg escorted Weingarten to a Yankees playoff game. Suddenly, after all the Sturm und Drang, a deal seemed imminent.
“Klein sees teachers as cogs in a factory model,” says Weingarten. She accuses him of trying to turn the schools into a “paramilitary system.”
But it wasn’t. Behind the scenes, Klein was livid at what he saw as a monumental cave-in. Always more hawkish than the mayor, Klein wasn’t sure exactly where Bloomberg stood—but he decided to push back, and hard. (Weingarten would later spread a rumor that Klein threatened to quit, a story he calls “an outright lie.”)
Among those advocating compromise was the Partnership for New York City. “Business leaders are comfortable with tough decisions on their turf, but when they’re engaged in civic causes, they want everyone to be happy-shmappy,” Kathryn Wylde explains. “But Joel convinced everybody that he had to draw a line in the sand, that taking the politically palatable course wasn’t going to accomplish what was necessary.” In the end, Bloomberg agreed.
In April, at the request of the UFT, a state fact-finding panel was appointed to try to break what had become a bitter impasse. Five months later, it issued a report that was Solomonic from top to toe. Where the administration had proposed a meager 4 percent raise over three years and teachers had demanded 19, the report suggested 11. It endorsed pay-for-performance, but as a pilot program, and bonuses for “master teachers” in tough subjects. It recommended lengthening the school day, but not adding a full sixth period as the administration wanted, and requiring teachers to perform lunchroom duty and hallway patrol (an idea they find odious). But on the issue of making it easier to get rid of inept teachers—which the union had fought tooth and nail as an end to teacher tenure and an assault on due-process rights—the report gave Klein next to nothing. “That was probably the most disappointing,” he tells me later.
My lunch with Weingarten happens to take place minutes after she’s been handed a copy of the report. She immediately deems it a suitable foundation for a final deal. But Weingarten’s wheels are spinning about how enthusiastic she should be in her public comments. Sounding too positive would send the wrong message to Bloomberg and Klein, who might press for more concessions. But sounding too negative would cause her own people to go nuts, especially the militant faction. “The work-rule stuff aside, in all labor negotiations the key issues are always money and time,” one of her advisers tells me later. “We did well on the money, but some of the teachers are not going to be happy with working a longer day.”
Weingarten expects Bloomberg to quickly signal his take on the report. When two weeks pass without public comment, she grows increasingly agitated. At the UFT, rumors fly that Klein is again thwarting a deal. Weingarten knows that after Election Day her leverage will decline precipitously, so she decides to turn up the heat. Around the city, teachers begin staging protests; when Klein attends a meeting at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side, he is met with boos and chants of “Shame on you” by 100 irate picketers. Talk of a strike grows more serious—or at least more vociferous.
Finally, at the end of September, Weingarten hauls out the biggest club left in her bag: The UFT screens a stark and brutal anti-Bloomberg ad for one of the mayor’s closest confidants—and tells him that it’s set to begin airing the following week.
Within days, Bloomberg informs his people that he wants to put this behind him, and soon the sides are locked in a weekend-long negotiating session. Huddled in the UFT offices on lower Broadway, the two teams haggle and fight, with Klein weighing in by phone. According to one insider, the chancellor seems to be trying to derail every compromise—until finally, on Sunday, “Bloomberg turns to Joel and says, ‘Okay, you have to stop, we’re done.’ ”
For Weingarten, however, any sense of triumph proves fleeting. Despite having delivered a contract better than what the fact-finders suggested—a year longer, with a bigger pay raise and a provision that prevents teachers from being disciplined over “the format of the bulletin boards, the arrangement of classroom furniture, and the exact duration of lesson units”—Weingarten faces discontent among her constituents. At a conference in Denver a few days later, she tells reporters that she’s “not so sure” the teachers will approve the deal. Who does she blame? Klein, naturally—for making her look weak by hugging her at City Hall (even though she asked for it) and for having “broke[n] the cardinal rule” of negotiating by “gloat[ing]” in the blogosphere (even though the UFT’s blog has done precisely the same thing). With ballots being sent out this week, to be tallied by November 3, the smart money says that the deal will be approved, but no one’s betting the mortgage payment on it.
Klein, for his part, professes satisfaction with the putative new contract. “I didn’t get everything I wanted, but nobody gets everything they want,” he tells me. “But on key issues”—seniority transfers, teachers in the hallways, and master teachers—“I’m actually quite pleased.”
Some of this is spin, of course. Though Klein is too much a realist to have ever expected his eight-page contract to be adopted—and enough of a player to recognize that his given role in the negotiations was to push the envelope so that Bloomberg could play the statesman—he is also enough of a dreamer to have hoped he’d get more than he got. What Klein wants is to see the system run as a federation of small businesses, with principals acting as CEOs of their schools and the DOE as the enforcer of standards and accountability. “It’s why I’m a supporter of charter schools,” he says. “There I can say, ‘You can do things differently, hire who you want, nobody has lifetime tenure. But if you don’t succeed, I’m gonna shut you down.’ ”
Maybe the measure of a successful negotiation is that both parties are disappointed in the end. But again, there are more than just two parties here. For Bloomberg, the way the drama played out couldn’t have been more ideal. By dragging out the process, he sidelined the UFT politically during this campaign season. And whether the tensions between him and Klein are real or for show—at times the two of them seem to be in competition—by having the chancellor play the heavy, Bloomberg shielded himself from much of the fury simmering among the teachers.
“I don’t know how much of it was by design and how much of it he lucked into,” a Weingarten ally observes. “But in retrospect, Bloomberg played it perfectly—I mean, my God, poor Freddy.”
Freddy Ferrer sits in his campaign headquarters, wearing khakis and an open-neck shirt, straining to make an analogy about the CEO mayor and how he’s failed the schools. It’s a Saturday night, and Ferrer and I have been talking for a while about whether it makes sense to apply private-sector management techniques to public education. Ferrer has already offered up one clunker—“If this were a corporation, we would be required by law to have a restatement of earnings”—so he’s trying again. “If one of the Big Three auto-makers built a car with a superb transmission, but a bad engine, bad body work, bad fit and finish, and only sold 50 percent of its output, what would you say?”
Ferrer is talking here about the graduation rate, his signature theme on the signature issue of the campaign. Although the former Bronx borough president does speak about what he perceives as the other shortcomings of the Bloomberg-Klein regime—the lack of transparency, the micromanagement of teachers, the “bungled” private-sector initiatives—the dropout rate is, for him, the big kahuna. “The point of a public-school system is to produce graduates with all the tools they need to be economically and civically self-sufficient,” he says. “If that’s the case, then with a 50 percent or more dropout rate, we have a serious problem.”
On the face of it, Ferrer’s argument seems plausible enough. As Klein readily allows, the graduation rate is “the most important metric” in assessing the long-term progress of the schools. And, no doubt, New York’s is alarmingly low; the national average is 71 percent. But beneath the surface—and not far beneath it—Ferrer’s case has some problems.
To start with, Ferrer tends to refer to the graduation rate and the dropout rate as if they were the same. In fact, according to the DOE, the four-year graduation rate is 54.3 percent. But the dropout rate is just 16.3 percent, with the other 29.4 percent of students remaining in high school for a fifth year. And the graduation rate has risen since Bloomberg took office—albeit slowly; in 2002, it was 50.8 percent—to the highest it’s been in nearly two decades.
The deeper problem is that Ferrer’s position ignores demographic reality. As Klein points out, “Every kid who’s graduated since I started was in high school when I began.” And the harsh truth is that the effects of any reform on them were going to be limited. With that in mind, Klein and Bloomberg have sequenced their initiatives from the bottom up, focusing first on the lower grades before moving on to the higher ones. “If you increase the number of kids who go to middle school prepared,” Klein argues, “you improve graduation rates down the line.”
Ferrer’s line of attack has proved even weaker politically. For weeks, his campaign has quibbled over statistics and methodology, a tactic that tends to induce severe-onset narcolepsy. Bloomberg, meanwhile, has parried in a way that reinforces Ferrer’s image as a static figure, wedded to the past. “The thing Freddy has to dance around,” says Deputy Mayor for Policy Dennis Walcott, “is that, in 2001, the mayor said, ‘I want control of the schools,’ and never backed away from it … Whereas Freddy wanted to maintain the status quo: He’s on record saying he wanted to keep the old Board of Education.”
Later, I raise the matter with Ferrer: “The mayor says, ‘He was against mayoral control.’ True or false?” Ferrer stares blankly back and says, “I don’t accept that dopey question”—then offers an answer lifted from John Kerry’s “I voted for it before I voted against it” greatest-hits anthology. (For the record, Ferrer, during his 2001 campaign, referred to mayoral control as a “facile political gimmick.”)
But hapless as Ferrer may be, he’s right about one thing: New Yorkers remain distressed about public education. After three years of tumult and revolutionary rhetoric, to many parents and students the schools seem much the same. Assuming Bloomberg and Klein get another term, when might that start to change?
One morning in October, Klein pays a visit to P.S./I.S. 33 in Chelsea, which sits on Ninth Avenue, across from a housing project. The principal 1there, Linore Lindy, is a woman Klein describes as a “phenomenal dynamo. She says their approach is ‘90-90-90’—90 percent poverty, 90 percent minority, 90 percent on grade.” And while the school remains some ways off from achieving the last figure, the recent improvements have been marked: A year ago, only about 30 percent of the students were performing at grade level in reading; now the number is over 60 percent. “The parents at that school,” Klein tells me later, “say it’s a totally different place.”
For Klein, P.S. 33 is a way of addressing the question of when transformation will come. His answer, boiled down, is that it’s already happening—just in certain places and not others. “Our goal is not a great school system; our goal is a system of great schools,” he says. “We’re in the process of transforming schools one at a time.”
Carmen Fariña, his deputy for teaching and learning, elaborates with more precision—and with a touch of heresy. Asked about Bloomberg’s contention that when he took office, as he put it to me, “the school system was broken,” Fariña replies, “The system wasn’t totally broken, but it was totally inequitable. Where it was good, it was very good, and where it was bad, it was horrible, and nobody was doing anything about it … In the schools that were doing good work already, you’re not going to see a major transformation. Where the transformation is happening is in places that were inequitably treated.”
Fariña is a lifelong educator of considerable repute. After 22 years as a teacher, five as a staff developer, ten as a principal, and three as a superintendent, she became Klein’s No. 2 for academics in the wake of the Lam scandal. She is seen as someone who never drank the Klein Kool-Aid—which is why her confidence about the direction things are headed is taken seriously even by Klein’s critics.
Fariña’s confidence is rooted in her conversations with countless teachers. She believes that they have adapted to the new curriculum and are actually happy with it. “What you’re also seeing is much smarter teachers among the new generation,” she says. “And when I talk to principals behind closed doors, they’re all seeking how to get better—visiting other schools, picking people’s brains about what works—and you never saw that before.”
Could Klein run for mayor if the schools are fixed? “That would be a very reasonable platform, sure it would be,” he says. “I think about it a lot.”
From outside Tweed, another kind of transformation is also evident: Klein and his team seem more open to criticism (while still being loath to admit it). NYU’s Tobias points to the promotion policy. “The original plan was to use a single test to determine if a student would be promoted,” he says. “A lot people, including me, thought that was a terrible idea. But then they quietly modified the policy to let in other evidence, like what the teacher says and the student’s portfolio. And this, along with giving help to low-performing kids, makes it one of the most enlightened performance-based promotion policies that’s been implemented anywhere.”
Despite all this, Klein still faces a host of daunting challenges. There’s his small-schools initiative, which foundered during his first term when it set in motion what he calls a slew of “unintended consequences,” the most visible of which was overcrowding of several large high schools. There’s the middle schools, where the problems are grave and ingrained. There’s the Leadership Academy, which despite many indications of promise has yet to demonstrate its value. And there’s lackluster performance across the system in science and social studies.
“What’s left for him to do? I could go on forever,” Klein’s friend Dick Parsons says. “But you can’t fall prey to the idea that you can’t fix anything before you fix everything. And I think Joel sees that.”
But Klein sees something else as well: He doesn’t have much time left.
When Klein lived in Washington, he was the consummate Beltway creature—a regular on the cocktail circuit, a tennis partner to the likes of Alan Greenspan and Antonin Scalia. But Klein says that one of the attractions of being chancellor was the appeal of being home. “I know the streets of New York, I know the neighborhoods,” he says one day at Tweed. “I can go back to Bensonhurst and talk to people about what it was like at P.S. 205. I can walk into DiFara’s—the best pizza place in New York—on 15th and J in Brooklyn, and I can talk about education, about immigration, about what makes New York a special city.”
As Klein unfurls this reverie, I jot down in my notebook: He wants to be mayor.Klein’s commitment to stick around for two terms has been in place since the start. But even so, he has never taken his sights far off the future. “I was prepared to risk failure with this job,” he says, “because I knew there was life after being chancellor of Education in New York.”
As for what that life might hold, his friends have no clue. “Joel has not progressed on a linear path,” says David Boies. “Would you have predicted that he was going to head the antitrust division and try to break up Microsoft? Or that he would become an executive at Bertelsmann? Or that he would become the chancellor of the schools? None of this, nothing about Joel, was or is predictable.”
Over dinner, I put the question to Klein. “It depends on whether I succeed or not,” he says. “Part of me thinks I want to go back to Washington and become attorney general. That’s the job I’ve wanted since I was old enough to remember.”
Since we’re well past our first glass of wine, I ask about running for mayor. Let’s say that you succeed with the schools—wouldn’t that be a reasonable platform?
Klein blushes faintly. “That would be a very reasonable platform, sure it would be,” he says, grinning broadly now. “I think a lot about it.” Klein then catches himself and offers some caveats: “I don’t love the life in which you’re constantly in the political eye, and I don’t like to raise money, unlike the mayor.” But when I note that he’s a hometown boy, a working-class kid made good—no small electoral advantages—he grins again and says, “I agree. And in that sense, it’s another reason why I think I’ve trained for this all my life.”
A few days later, I float the Klein-for-mayor trial balloon with Jack Welch, and he offers an immediate endorsement: “If he fixes the schools, he can own the city.”
The reality, of course, is more vexing for whatever City Hall fantasies Klein may be nurturing. Though the appearance of progress in the schools has helped Bloomberg, Klein is hardly basking in any warm effusion of public sentiment: According to the Quinnipiac survey, just 40 percent of New Yorkers approve of his performance, versus 33 percent who disapprove. Meanwhile, his brazen treatment of Weingarten has likely earned him an enemy for life—and that alone might be enough to doom him in a future Democratic primary. It might even be enough to complicate his aspiration to be attorney general.
But Klein believes that he is on the right side of the issue—and the right side of history. And although he’d never say so, he believes that, in the end, the city and his party will come to embrace him for what he has undertaken. He believes, in a way, that they will have no other choice; the results will be that unequivocal. Call this vanity, call it arrogance, call it supreme self-confidence. It’s the quality that makes Klein so insufferable to so many—and so relentless in pursuing his objectives.
It also fuels a sense of optimism that borders on pathological. When I ask his reaction to his dismal poll numbers, Klein just smiles and shrugs. “I thought, Wow, that’s a lot of people—three quarters of the people in the city actually know who I am!”