School Reform: The Education of Cathie Black

From insensitive remarks to communications issues, the former publishing CEO was a bad fit for New York schools chancellor. Jacob Bernstein on Mayor Bloomberg's stunning decision.

From the start, Cathie Black's appointment as the schools chancellor seemed odd. After all, she was a Park Avenue-based publishing executive with no background in public service and children who'd attended plush private schools.

Then, in December, shortly after being announced as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s choice, Black made an appearance at a Christmas party held by the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators. There, the organization’s African-American president, Ernie Logan, introduced Black and when he was done, the former Hearst Magazines president took to the podium and commented that Logan was such a good speaker, he should be a preacher, which to some indicated the same kind of racial cluelessness that nearly capsized Joe Biden when he called Barack Obama “articulate” back in 2008, as if this was somehow a surprise quality in a black person.

“I was not offended by it,” Logan recalls, in an interview Monday night, confirming the anecdote. “I am an ordained deacon of the Baptist church. But other people were a little put out.”

They certainly were. “People were taken aback,” says another person in attendance that evening. “It felt like a stereotype. The cliché of the black preacher is not dissimilar to the cliché of the black entertainer or athlete. It had a bad thump.”

Unfortunately, Black didn’t seem to get the message that she should be more careful about what she should (and should not say) in public. A few weeks later, Black attended a meeting at Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s New York City office, and made an off-color quip about what could be done to reduce overcrowding in public schools. “Could we just have some birth control for a while?” she said, in a remark that quickly made the rounds to reporters all over the city. “It could really help us all out a lot.”

Folks in the education community who were already bristling at Bloomberg’s seeming disdain for teachers’ unions and advocacy of charter schools were given ammunition when Black proved to be nearly impossible to reach.

“It was damaging because it hit a racial chord,” Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, tells The Daily Beast, adding that a comment about how she might not send her own kids to public school was in equally poor taste. “It suggested she was indiscreet, had poor judgment, and was insensitive to different groups.”

On Thursday morning, Black was dismissed from her position after just three months, in a stunning turnabout that speaks not only to her own limitations but also to the hubris of a mayor who’s now attempting to keep his ship from sinking by throwing the passengers overboard.

Bloomberg haters have had a field day with this. They cite a series of miscues—the aborted campaign to muscle Caroline Kennedy into Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat; then the widely criticized decision to run for a third term and a surprisingly thin margin separating him from his challenger, William Thompson. After that, the seemingly callous response to an incapacitating snowstorm this winter, which he declared was not the end of the world. Then, finally, with the Black appointment, the presumption that because Bloomberg was a CEO who entered public service, anyone else with an MBA (or a self-help manual about how to succeed in business) was qualified to do the same.

Cue the schadenfreude!

“There’s plenty of evidence of [Bloomberg's] being tone-deaf previously,” says de Blasio. “But it’s clearly worse now. In the first term he strived to be somewhat present and responsive to the different communities in the city. That lessened in the second term and it’s been almost non-existent in the third term. The Cathie Black appointment epitomized the sense of not even having to consider the anger parents would feel at a non-educator getting this job.”

Meanwhile, folks in the education community who were already bristling at Bloomberg’s seeming disdain for teachers’ unions and advocacy of charter schools were given ammunition when Black proved to be nearly impossible to reach. (Black declined comment for this article, referring The Daily Beast to a PR person from the Department of Education, who did not respond to a voicemail message left Thursday night.)

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“The problem became that we almost couldn’t link up,” says Logan, echoing several off-the-record conversations with people from both charter and public schools. “With Joel Klein, we had a telephone relationship, we emailed constantly. Nothing happened that I didn’t hear from him. And we never got to that stage [with Cathie Black]… I don’t know what that was about.”

It didn’t help matters when those who did spend more time with Black walked away equally unimpressed. "It was miraculous what a slow learner she was," says one person who met her. Equally surprising, the source says, was that Black seemed to have no good explanation for why she wanted the job or what she wanted to do with it. "A person usually has a story. Joel Klein had a story, he was the son of a postal worker, his teachers got him to Harvard. But she didn’t have a good story and it's a job where people are throwing tomatoes all day long. It’s an uncivil debate, there’s the media, which is relentless, so you have to believe it really matters. You can’t do the job unless you believe there’s a reason for doing it."

Black's tenure at Hearst had some obvious successes, most especially, her green-lighting of O: The Oprah Magazine. Still, the stumbles were just as apparent, including a nine-year struggle with CosmoGIRL (now folded), as well as two short but expensive runs with Shop Etc. and Talk magazine (which was edited by Tina Brown, the editor in chief of this website). Meanwhile, magazines like Marie Claire, Town & Country, and Redbook have seen a fair amount of upheaval in recent years as well as declines in advertising and newsstand sales.

But under public scrutiny like never before with the schools job, eventually, the public began to catch on. “Her poll numbers were an embarrassment for Bloomberg,” Diane Ravitch, a historian of education and a research professor at NYU, says in an email. “Presumably, she was brought in to convey his message, and they found she couldn’t talk in public because she had a penchant for flip remarks and knew nothing about education. [There were] too many tough issues for her to deal with.”

Where Black will go next seems unclear. Many say her career in publishing is over, and she gave up a couple of prominent board seats (Coca-Cola, IBM) to take the job. Neither is expected to be offered back to her in the wake of her PR debacle, a source who knows her from her publishing days says.

Meanwhile, a year ago, people were saying he could be a potential presidential candidate in 2012. Now, de Blasio and others say such an idea is far-fetched. “I just don’t see a route,” the public advocate shrugs.

Still, some say the Mayor deserves some credit for being willing to admit a mistake. Says Eva Moskowitz of the Harlem Success Academy, "My view is that this reflects well on the mayor. His hire wasn't the right fit. I view it as a difficult and appropriate decision.”

Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.