Cities with Non-Traditional School Leaders Often Have Educators as Deputies

Education Commissioner David Steiner's suggestion that publishing executive Cathie Black may need a Chief Academic Officer, in order to win approval, is not without precedent. In big cities from Los Angeles to Chicago with non-traditional school superintendents, those leaders have had deputies with education credentials.

But Dan Domenech, Executive Director of the American Association of School Administrators in Washington, D.C., says those superintendents are the ones choosing their deputies. And it's not clear whether that would be the case in Commissioner Steiner's scenario.

"Whether the commissioner is suggesting that there needs to be a person equal to the chancellor in the academic area and the two of them report directly to the mayor, that’s where I’m not sure I understand," he says.

The commissioner has not provided any clarification.

Domenech knows a thing or two about the process for approving a New York City schools chancellor. In 1995, the old New York City Board of Education was on the verge of approving him to replace outgoing chancellor Ramon Cortines. But at the last minute, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani convinced the Staten Island representative to vote against Domenech. The mayor wanted a chancellor of his own choosing and Rudy Crew became a compromise both the board and the mayor could live with.

Of course, that was before Mayor Michael Bloomberg persuaded the state legislature to give him control of the schools in 2002. Bloomberg now gets to choose the chancellor. But there's still a state law requiring school leaders to have certain education credentials, or seek a waiver based on other exceptional qualifications. Bloomberg has tried to convince Commissioner Steiner that Black's experience at Hearst Magazines and USA Today makes her a "world class manager" at a time of budget cuts and that she'd rely on a team of educators for advice.

Commissioner Steiner hasn't yet issued his final decision on Black, following his advisory panel's rejection Tuesday of Bloomberg's request for her waiver. City Hall has been silent. The mayor's spokesman declined to comment on the panel's vote or on Steiner's suggestion that he'd prefer to see Black's application joined by a Chief Academic Officer.

But outgoing schools chancellor Joel Klein doesn't think Black needs an educator by her side to win state approval. He says she would have a strong team of educators already in place at the city's Department of Education.

"Right now in this department I've got six deputy chancellors who, among the six of them, probably have close to 200 years of experience," Klein told WNYC's Brian Lehrer show. "And it seems to me she will have all the support that she needs."

As for other cities, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and Denver are among those that have had school superintendents or CEO's whose main experience comes from outside the education world -- often either in finance or business. Education Secretary Arne Duncan didn't have teaching experience when he was tapped to lead the Chicago public schools. He previously ran a non-profit education foundation. But he had an educator working beside him, Barbara Eason Watkins. In San Diego, Alan Bersin (now U.S. Customs and Border Commissioner) ran the schools after being the Attorney General’s Southwest Border Representative in the 1990s. He was joined by former New York City District Two Superintendent Anthony Alvarado.

Michael Casserly, Executive Director of the Council of Great City Schools, said school leaders from other backgrounds voluntarily seek out educators who can work beside them.

"I rather think that most non-traditional superintendents and chancellors and C.E.O.'s thought it served them well to have a strong second or third that had good instructional experience since the education of the kids is essentially the bottom line of their operations," he explains. "The overall success or failure is probably no better, no worse than the regular traditional model which has also shown kind of mixed results over the years."