End of an era in New York City

The public education world shook yesterday with the news that New York City’s Chancellor Joel Klein was resigning.  Handpicked by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had taken control of the largest school system in the country in 2002, Klein, an anti-trust lawyer with no education experience, oversaw one of the more dramatic urban education transformations in history.

“[A]rguably the most creative/persistent/productive reformer among the country’s big-city superintendents,” said Checker Finn.

“Simply put,” Tom Carroll told me last night, “Joel Klein was the most consequential school official in the nation and in memory—bar none.  Visionary, fearless, iconoclastic, risk-taking, and incisive.”

Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the State’s Board of Regents, told the New York Times that Klein is “one of the great urban educational reformers of this century. Not just because he fought hard fights, but he did it in New York City, which people had really written off.”

“The significance of his departure can be measured by the collective gasping for breath across the educational community as word spread virally of his resignation,” said Carroll. “What everyone understands today is that we won’t see the likes of him again—ever. He was that good.”

(For more coverage see here, here, here, and here..)

There will, of course, be much to study about Klein and his legacy over the next several weeks (years)—just as there will be much speculation about what Klein’s successor, Cathleen Black, chairwoman of Hearst Magazines and another non-educator, will do with the reins of Gotham’s $23 billion school system. (Mediabistro called her “the first lady of American magazines.” And, based on the picture with that story, she’s a buddy of the Mayor—and Oprah.  As the Times says, she has “much in common with her new boss.”)

I spent several months bird-dogging the Bloomberg/Klein education transformation in 2008 and the overwhelming impression was that the mogul and the trust-buster had taken charge. “It makes a difference,” Seymour Fliegel, a 30-year veteran of New York City’s school wars and a former deputy superintendent in East Harlem, told me, “that the same guy who can command the garbage trucks and police cruisers is talking about education.”  And command they did.  With Bloomberg’s unyielding support, Klein transformed what Mayor Bloomberg called “a rinky-dink candy store” into an educational enterprise worthy of respect.

Here’s some of what Klein accomplished in the eight years he was chancellor:

–Dismantled the 32 community school districts that most people considered patronage factories;

–Moved headquarters out of Brooklyn and parked them in a grandly renovated Tweed Courthouse, next door to City Hall;

–Introduced an A-to-F school grading system;

–Shuttered hundreds of schools while creating 470 new ones;

–Gave the city’s principals much more autonomy;

–Encouraged a charter school movement that became a model of innovation;

–Attracted millions of dollars in philanthropic gifts, including from Bill Gates, whose company Klein had once prosecuted.

All of this while doggedly pursuing union reforms (he killed the infamous “rubber rooms”). There was—and will continue to be—much to argue about, including test scores, graduation rates, and class sizes (see Diane Ravitch and/or Sol Stern at “related posts” below), but there is no doubt that Klein and Bloomberg have introduced some much needed common sense, business management practices, accountability, and, yes, a laser-like focus on student achievement, to a system that had become unmanageable and unproductive.

“Did he stir things up?” quipped Bloomberg yesterday. “You betcha. That was the job. And the great beneficiaries of that stirring were our children.”

Klein will leave at the end of the year to work for Rupert Murdoch’s media company, to pursue, he says, “entrepreneurial ventures” in the education marketplace.

As Klein told me in an email last night, “This is the right time—it gives someone three years to move the agenda forward and I have been offered an opportunity at NewsCorp to have a big impact in the area of educational technology, which holds out enormous opportunity for transforming education.”

Are these interesting times or what?

—Peter Meyer

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