The man in charge of deciding whether publishing executive Cathie Black can be the city's next school's chancellor, despite her lack of education credentials, is often described as someone who thinks outside the box.
If there's a case to be made for an unconventional chancellor, then Education Commissioner David Steiner could be open to that based on his record. He's criticized teaching colleges for not being rigorous enough, he embraces alternate routes to certification and he supports using data to measure teacher performance.
Before taking the job in Albany in 2009, Steiner was dean of the Education School at Hunter College. But Hunter President Jennifer Raab, who on Thursday signed a letter urging Steiner to approve a waiver for Black, says the faculty originally wanted a dean with a PhD in Education. Steiner's doctorate, from Harvard, is in political science.
"When they met him and they saw his vision and his passion for transforming the school to make us the place that trained the best teachers in the country, they really engaged with him and this was the candidate that they wanted," she says.
Raab says Steiner transformed the school by integrating technology in teaching, using tiny cameras to record student teachers so they could learn by watching themselves. He also formed partnerships with charter schools.
"These were great changes and he brought the faculty along to see different ways of teaching and different types of engagement in an incredibly skillful manner and an incredibly respectful manner," she recalls.
Those are skills Mayor Bloomberg says Cathie Black can also bring to the city schools.
As for what Steiner will ultimately decide about the waiver, however, few people are willing to place any bets. Because he was appointed last year, this is the first time Steiner's had to decide on a waiver. The state requires school superintendents to have a license, a related master's degree, or three year's of teaching experience. Waivers can be granted to those with other exceptional qualifications. Mayor Bloomberg has argued that Black's experience running Hearst Magazines and USA Today meets that threshhold. He's also argued that she's dealt with education issues as a trustee of Notre Dame University and that she'd even be prepared for school construction projects because of her involvement in the new Hearst office tower.
As politicians, business leaders and parents for and against the mayor's pick now lobby Steiner, those who know him say he'll remain above the fray. He has declined to speak about the matter and says he will appoint a panel to study the waiver request. Robert Hughes, president of New Visions for Public Schools, says Steiner is "smart, understands educational issues and I think he acts in the best interests of kids."
Steiner is also relatively independent of politics. He was appointed by the Board of Regents, who are appointed by state legislators. That gives him some leeway, though he does rely on lawmakers for education funding. Hughes says there's no telling whether Steiner would agree with Mayor Bloomberg that Black doesn't need to be an educator because she'll be surrounded by them. Both of his parents were academics and his own career path reflects a deep respect for educators. Yet, the state allows for a waiver and in the case of New York City, the mayor controls the schools.
"You've got somebody who's not afraid of controversy, who's very smart, who's very committed to education as defined by effectiveness," says Hughes. "I can't venture to predict how he'll decide this."