Filling Superman Joel Klein's Shoes

In a jaw-dropping appointment, Hearst exec Cathie Black will succeed New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, education reform rock star. Lloyd Grove talks to Klein about the challenges she faces.

11.10.10 12:47 AM ET

When New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg appointed Joel Klein chancellor of the city’s 1.1 million-student public school system eight years ago, critics complained that the former media executive and Justice Department official knew hardly anything about education.

But at least the Queens-born Klein—who announced his resignation Tuesday, with the mayor revealing his surprise choice to replace Klein: Hearst Magazines chairman Cathie Black—was himself a product of New York’s public schools. He even did a stint teaching sixth-grade math during a break from Harvard Law School in 1969. As he leaves office, Klein is a rock star in the nationwide education-reform movement, lionized in the much-discussed documentary Waiting for Superman, which exposed the banal evils of public education, circa 2010, and celebrated the ordinary people trying to confront them.

The same cannot be said for Cathie Black. Her education résumé is admittedly thin. She’s a member of the advisory council of Harlem Village Academy, a Manhattan charter school founded in 2001, and a trustee of Notre Dame in Indiana. A Chicago native, she will take the helm of the city's Department of Education in January, after Klein leaves to become a top executive and board member of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., specializing in developing a digital education business for the global media conglomerate.

The 66-year-old Black was recently replaced as president of Hearst’s magazine division and eased upstairs to the chairman’s office. At her height, the boss of some 2,000 employees producing 200 editions of 14 magazines in more than 100 countries was said to be on her way out and looking for a new challenge when the mayor started talking to her about the chancellor’s job several months ago, after Klein informed him that he was planning to move on. Black has known the mayor “for several years,” according to a Bloomberg spokesman.

Her jaw-dropping appointment—which came as a shock not only to professional educators, but also to political and media types who’d expected the next chancellor to be a well-regarded, high-profile education reformer in the mold of Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp—is bound to generate controversy, not least because of the big shoes she is filling.

As chancellor, the hard-charging Klein was in the trenches of the nation’s hottest education reform battles, tangling with unions to increase teacher accountability, asserting control over nearly every detail of America’s largest public school system, and working to standardize the curriculum and raise students’ test scores.

“Obviously, this a job where if you don’t like the fray, don’t get into it,” said Klein. “There is one challenge after another, and if you’re not prepared for controversy this is not a good place to be.”

“It’s the best job I ever had,” the 64-year-old Klein told me Tuesday evening in a wide-ranging interview. “I have made a lot of omelets, but if you don’t make omelets in this business, you don’t accomplish anything. This is a very, very different school system from the school system I took over in 2002... I point to the fact that we opened up 500 new schools that parents are signing up for, that for the first time enrollments are starting to rise consistently, that by any measure, people in the system will tell you that, while not without its problems, it’s a better, more focused, more performance-driven school system.”

Randi Weingarten, head of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers' union, practically love-bombed Klein as he made for the exit. “It's not a secret that the chancellor and I did not always see eye to eye on what’s best for our kids and fair to our teachers, but I never questioned his commitment to the city’s children,” she said in a statement. “I believe New York City’s schools, despite the challenges they face right now, are better than they were a decade ago. I wish him well in his next endeavor.”

By contrast, Weingarten reacted coolly to Black’s appointment. “I do not know Cathie Black,” she said tersely, “but I do know that in times like these, kids need leaders who believe in collaboration and who will work closely with teachers, parents, and the community on behalf of students and schools. I hope she is that kind of leader.”

Black is considered a tough, unsentimental executive with a sharp eye on the bottom line. Through ruthless cost-cutting, she has managed to keep Hearst’s magazine division profitable during a period of declining circulation and advertising sales, and since she joined the company in 1995 she has presided over her share of successful launches (Oprah and Food Network magazine, for instance) as well as disappointing failures (such as CosmoGirl and Lifetime). It’s not clear whether her skills in the publishing business are transferable to running a huge public agency.

One Hearst colleague describes her as “a coalition-builder,” adding:

“She’s very good at getting people to come together to work toward a common goal.” But another Hearst insider cautions: “It’s a whole different set of muscles. It is one thing to be a queen in the private sector, making decrees, but in politics you can’t beat everyone into becoming your supplicants.”

Among the first controversies Black must address is the usage and methodology of teachers’ job-performance evaluations. Last month, the United Federation of Teachers, arguing that current methods are unfair, confusing, and inaccurate, filed a lawsuit against New York’s Department of Education to stop the agency from publicly releasing the performance ratings of 12,000 teachers. A hearing in New York Supreme Court is set for Nov. 24.

Klein, and presumably Black, is a staunch advocate of releasing the sensitive personnel information to the public. “It’s a big issue for the unions, but it’s also a big issue in making sure the public has information it’s entitled to,” Klein told me. “I assume that if you had a kid in one of these schools, you’d want the information.” He added: “Obviously, this a job where if you don’t like the fray, don’t get into it. There is one challenge after another, and if you’re not prepared for controversy this is not a good place to be.”

Along with Mayor Bloomberg—who praised Black as a “world-class manager” who is “uniquely qualified” to run an agency with a $23 billion budget and 135,000 employees, more than 60 times the size of her domain at Hearst—Klein defended her appointment.

“I’ve developed a team here with eight deputy chancellors and a chief operating officer, and what she’s going to be looking at is entirely different from what I was looking at,” he said. “The issues they face, in terms of budgetary issues, teacher-employer relations, evaluations, are things she brings real expertise to. She has a lot of real management expertise, budget expertise, personnel expertise, and those are the big issues now. She’s got a team around her that I’ve built over the last eight years. And she has a relationship with the mayor.”

The Daily Beast’s Peter Lauria contributed to this report.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.