The process of corporatizing America’s public schools took a leap forward recently with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s nomination of Cathleen P. Black to become the chancellor of the city’s public schools. Black currently serves as the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines (a division of the Hearst Corporation) and has no background in educational leadership, policy, or anything else that might reasonably be seen as relevant preparation for heading the largest public school district in the nation. Her own children did not even attend public schools. Unfortunately, with his nomination, Bloomberg – a former businessperson himself – has made his vision of where our schools are headed unapologetically clear. What is more unnerving is that plenty of influential people share this vision, and have for some time.
For decades now, our public schools, particularly those with concentrated urban poverty, have been increasingly infused with corporate culture – from the language embedded in curriculums to the expected learning outcomes of students.* Consequently, the distinction between administrators and managers has been muddied. When a publishing executive becomes a mayor’s candidate to head a city’s schools, it leaves one to reflect on whether the distinction even continues to exist in the minds of some decision-makers.
Fortunately, however, not everybody has gone along with the mayor’s concerning decision. And the resistance is not just philosophical but legal, as well. According to state law, the New York City public school chancellor is required to hold a certificate in educational leadership as well as have at least three years of experience working in schools. Ms. Black has neither. To circumvent this pesky statute, however, Bloomberg and Black are seeking a waiver, which is allowed under the law for “exceptionally qualified persons.” Meanwhile, the mayor has even gone so far as to suggest that this law be abolished. Nevertheless, “only two of the eight members of an advisory panel [state education commissioner] Dr. Steiner appointed to evaluate Ms. Black’s background unconditionally endorsed her bid for a waiver,” according to the New York Times.
Pockets of resistance have emerged among parents, too. Petitions have begun to make the rounds and a recent Quinnipiac University poll showed a majority of New Yorkers opposed to Ms. Black’s potential appointment. Yet as many parents have organized against the nomination, Dr. Steiner’s office has reportedly been inundated with calls and letters in support of Ms. Black – from business executives to celebrities and other elites with no ties to the school system such as the parents have. It will remain to be seen whether or not the mayor even acknowledges the parents’ concerns.
It is interesting to remember that New York’s outgoing chancellor Joel I. Klein (picked by Bloomberg in 2002) also came from the business world. Part of the difference, though, is that Bloomberg was still riding a wave of popularity following his election and New Yorkers were ready to try a new type of leadership for their public schools. But after eight years of Mr. Klein, the idea of another chancellor more familiar with a boardroom than a classroom seems considerably less acceptable.
The decision will most likely be made within the next few days. I can only hope that the voice of the people is heard by Mayor Bloomberg; if not, then the state education commission should protect this school district and deny the waiver. Either way, an appointment of Cathleen Black to this position would set a troubling precedent for urban school districts nationwide.
*For more reading on corporate culture in our poor, urban schools, I recommend Jonathan Kozol’s well-known The Shame of the Nation (2005).