Focus of Chancellor Debate Shifts to Waiver Request

Because she doesn’t have the proper education credentials, publishing executive Cathie Black needs a waiver stating that she has other extraordinary qualifications in order to become schools chancellor. Mayor Bloomberg has said he’ll submit a request for such a waiver soon, citing her vast managerial experience. That request will then be reviewed by the state’s education commissioner.

But at last night’s meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer wanted a more public vetting process of a woman he said has been sheltered by City Hall for the past week.

"The mayor’s handlers are treating her like Dan Quayle," he told reporters. "It’s like a vice presidential pick that they’re becoming embarrassed about and I don’t think they should approach it that way. I think she’s talented, I think she’s got a great record in her career and I think she should meet before parents and students and elected officials and say this is what I’m about."

To force things out in the open, Stringer’s appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy, Patrick Sullivan, introduced a resolution last night calling for the panel to ask for the waiver. Even though the 13-member body is controlled by the mayor’s appointees, he said this proposal would ensure a more public process than having the waiver request come straight from Bloomberg.

That proposal was soundly defeated on the grounds that it wasn’t necessary. The state education commissioner had written the Education Department a letter saying the waiver request could come straight from Bloomberg. But the proposal did provide an opportunity for public comment. More than 100 people attended the meeting at Brooklyn Technical High School -- not a large number compared to the almost 9,000 who have signed a petition opposing Black. Many were there to speak about other topics, but there were dozens who apparently came because they were upset about Black’s selection.

"From what we’ve seen so far, we don’t trust this woman to oversee our child’s educational future," said Brooklyn parent Laura Curran. She said she understood the mayor’s argument that a good manager is needed during a time of budget cuts, "but the person I want overseeing those cutbacks and the inevitable crisis is somebody who’s committed fundamentally to education and to educational principles."

Curran’s comments were echoed by other parents, two city council members and several teachers. Some teachers wore orange makeshift superhero capes (in a dig at the education documentary "Waiting for Superman") and wrote a rap song calling themselves the "real reformers."

But the outgoing Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, defended the Mayor’s selection of Black. "I think people need to understand this is really a critical leadership and management challenge. And you need to assemble a team. There’s nobody that brings everything to the table but I think she brings a lot of the things this department needs, I have great confidence in her."

But that confidence might not be enough. The person ultimately in charge of appointing Black is State Education Commissioner David Steiner. He’ll have to decide if her managerial experience is solid enough to overcome her lack of education credentials.

Both Klein and his predecessor, Harold Levy, were granted waivers. But Klein had worked in the public sector with the U.S. Justice Department and also taught in the city’s schools. Levy was a member of the Board of Regents. Levy says Steiner has a real dilemma in deciding whether Black is qualified under the statute.

"If he says she does and it truly is the case that she has had no contact with education, then he pretty much guts the statute," he says, making it easier for districts across the state to pick leaders with no educational experience. And Steiner may be reluctant to do that as former dean of the Hunter College School of Education. But Levy notes that in New York City, the Mayor controls the schools.

"Today the chancellor really is another commissioner. He’s an appointee of the Mayor and the Mayor’s responsible for what he does. I don’t think the Mayor ought to be constrained in who he can appoint. I think we ought to hold him accountable if he appoints someone who’s not qualified."

The Mayor is expected to submit a request for a waiver this week. Education commissioner Steiner will then appoint a panel of experts to decide if Black is as qualified as Bloomberg believes.