What Has Bloomberg Learned from the Cathie Black Disaster?

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Former New York City schools chancellor Cathie Black

Some may say Cathie Black was doomed to fail. From the very moment New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he was putting the former media executive at the helm of the nation's largest public-school system, parents, teachers and even students were up in arms. Most of the uproar was about Black's lack of experience in education. Sure, as the former president and publisher of USA Today and chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, she had experience managing large groups of people, but without an ounce of experience in education, it was an uphill battle.

That battle ended abruptly on April 7, when Bloomberg announced Black was stepping down after fewer than 100 days on the job. In her place, he installed Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, who, in addition to overseeing the city's Department of Education in his role at the mayor's office, holds a master's in education and has worked as a kindergarten teacher. Bloomberg's concession was loud and clear: when it comes to being a successful chancellor, perhaps experience in education does matter.

But does it mean that public schools, laden with decades of creaking bureaucracy, don't need a dose of business know-how too?

This wasn't the first time Bloomberg had faced this very same question — or the first time he'd faced public opposition to his pick for schools chancellor. In 2002, when the mayor selected Joel Klein, also an education outsider, for the job, he worked to spin the public into his favor, arguing that Klein's decades of experience in labor law made him a great fit for the position as he would be able to negotiate with unions. (Klein was appointed and served in the position for eight years before he left for News Corp. on Jan. 1.)

That same justification didn't work for Bloomberg this time around. During her stint at Hearst Magazines, Black oversaw the production of 200 editions of 14 magazines in some 100 countries, but the staff she managed was not unionized. Still, Bloomberg pushed for Black, calling her a "superstar manager" and contending that her decades leading various media companies made her exactly the person New York City's 1.1 million public-school students needed during a time when the department was dealing with epic budget cuts.

But her downfall wasn't just due to lack of experience. Black ruffled feathers in her first few weeks when she joked with parents about using birth control to stem school overcrowding. A short while later, she compared the hard decisions she had before her to the Holocaust victim in the novel and movie Sophie's Choice. She also mocked a crowd at Brooklyn Technical High School in February who booed her. And it didn't bode well that Black sent her children to private boarding schools either.

Which is why, when Bloomberg announced Black's departure, parents groups cheered. "I am very excited about this," says Ayo Harrington, former president of the United Parents of NYC and current grandparent of a public-school student. "For the first time in a very, very long time ... someone has been appointed chancellor who really understands the school system." But others are more dubious about how much changing the guard will really change. After all, in appointing Walcott, Bloomberg isn't exactly giving in to parents who are unhappy with the way the system is run. While Bloomberg did say in a press conference Thursday that he took full responsibility for Black not working out, he never said anything about it being because she came from outside education. And while Walcott does have markedly more education experience, he is still a mayoral appointee (in New York City, the mayor is ultimately in charge of all schools).

As such, Walcott is still beholden to the views of Bloomberg, who has expressed many times in not so many words that schools ought to be run like businesses, says Mona Davids, a public-school parent who founded a parents group known as Deny the Waiver Coalition. Her group has repeatedly called for a transparent national search for a chancellor. "This is the largest school system in the nation — how can there not be a national search?" Davids tells TIME. "This is just further proof of Mayor Bloomberg's manipulation of the education system."

But Bloomberg isn't the only one arguing that troubled schools could use some corporate know-how. In fact, many argue that a business leader can make a great school leader — it just has to be the right fit. Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a civic group of more than 100 corporate executives, says the set of skills executives take to the job of chancellor includes not only their ability to manage and communicate effectively, but also their ability to understand the key role public schools play in the nation's economy. "They are passionate about America refocusing its education system because they recognize on a global level that nothing is more important to our future than the talent pool," Wylde says. In Black's case, Wylde says, she possessed all those qualities, but she didn't do well with all the politicking back and forth. "Having the ability to negotiate with a variety of political constituencies is not something a career in business prepares you for," she tells TIME.

That unpreparedness seems to be exactly what Black's brief but tumultuous tenure was really about. Despite Black's successful career in media management, she was a wrong fit from the start, says Sol Stern, of the Manhattan Institute, who wrote a piece for the institute's City Journal titled "Bloomberg's Black Eye" after the mayor announced Black's appointment in November 2010. "Her downfall was inevitable," Stern tells TIME.

One thing is sure: many of the city's parents wish that the time and energy spent debating the merits of Black would have been better spent trying to figure out how to help the city's schoolkids weather the oncoming storm of a $1.2 billion statewide cut in school aid, which Bloomberg says may force him to dismiss 4,600 teachers. And if Walcott, the new chancellor, doesn't succeed, the mayor may again have to face an irate public and, as he did this time, take full responsibility for things not working out. And that, critics say, is precisely the problem. "If we really get to the heart of what happened here, it lies in the fact that we allow the mayor to have such complete control of the education system," says Stern. "There needs to be a system of checks and balances in place ... As James Madison said, men are not angels." And even if they were, New York City's unwieldy school system would still be a huge challenge.