Waive Goodbye -- No Waiver for Cathleen Black!

With over one million students and eighty thousand employees, the NYC public school system is, in itself, larger than most American cities and represents an enormous educational challenge. Common sense would suggest that leadership of such an enterprise, fraught as it is with issues of academic performance, budgetary constraints, class size concerns, aging school buildings, lack of space and funds for new construction, needs for special education and English language learning, diverse constituencies, and a host of others problems, needs a visionary leader with solid pedagogical and educational experience. However, if you are Michael Bloomberg, you apparently do not think so.

In a stunning move, Bloomberg has followed up the resignation of Chancellor Joel Klein by naming as his successor not an educator, not an academic, not an education policymaker, but the publisher of Cosmopolitan, Country Living, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, O, Redbook, Seventeen, and Town & Country magazines. Cathleen Black has been an executive at New York Magazine, USA Today, and the Gannett newspaper chain, and most recently (since 1995) President of Hearst Magazines. In those various capacities, she has accumulated zero experience in education policy, curriculum, or administration, nor by her own admission has she developed any experience dealing with labor unions.

She has, however, overseen magazines that drive (especially) teenage girls to heights of unhealthy frenzy over their bodies and sexuality. To quote Ann Kjellberg, “Can someone who sells our kids clothes that can only be worn in size 0, botox, liposuction, plastic surgery, and makeup for every hour of the day and sexual opportunity, who has given her career to tacitly encouraging anorexia and discouraging seriousness of purpose and self-advancement, who embraces the sex-in-the-city model of thinking only about clothes and getting the guy, possibly be put in charge of the future of our kids?”

In her personal life, Ms. Black has raised two children, both of whom apparently attended private boarding schools in Connecticut (despite her residency in NYC). In addition, she and her husband enjoy second homes in Connecticut and an exclusive community on Fire Island, thus ensuring that her personal experiences are nearly as far as humanly possible from the daily lives and concerns of NYC public school children and their families.

NY state law requires that candidates for school superintendency in districts of over 4,500 residents who do not meet minimal education career experience must receive a waiver from the state commissioner of education (now David Steiner) in order to assume such a position. However, as the law explicitly states, said waivers are to be issued to persons “whose exceptional training and experiences are the substantial equivalent of such requirements and qualify such persons for the duties of a superintendent of schools.”

Ms. Black’s background and experience demonstrate an utter absence of the position requirements, and her other qualifications appear to be little more than being a “Friend of Mike” and an attendee at Oprah Winfrey’s 50th birthday party, the one "with only a few of Oprah's closest friends." Otherwise, she has managed a large publishing organization, a dying industry in which slick superficiality and frothy trendiness supercede intellectual depth and serious treatment of real human issues and concerns. Even if one accepts the specious, highly debatable Bloomberg argument in favor of a management executive as schools chancellor, what "management skills" might be relevant to a schools chancellor? How about dealing directly, face-to-face with the public, negotiating with unions, building physical plant, planning and managing capacity utilization, and overseeing health, safety, and security? Based on her experience in the publishing industry, it seems likely that Ms. Black would have NONE of them. Thus, even by Mayor Bloomberg's absurdly argued criteria, she likely comes up way, way short.

For all his faults and despite the fact that he also did not merit a waiver, Joel Klein at least had modest exposure to the world of classroom teaching. In Cathleen Black’s case, Commissioner Steiner has no legitimate option other than to reject any application from Ms. Black or the NYC DOE for a waiver on the required qualifications for a schools superintendency. To do otherwise would be to make a mockery of both state education law and the responsibilities of the commissioner and the Board of Regents themselves.

NOTE: Those wishing to sign an online petition urging Commissioner David Steiner not to grant a waiver to Cathleen Black as Chancellor of NYC public schools can do so via this link. David Steiner's email address is dsteiner@mail.nysed.gov if you wish to email him regarding the waiver.

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