America has no more important job than converting all its inner-city schools from wrecks of despair to engines of hope. Millions of potentially productive young lives hang in the balance.
That's why it's heartening to see some of the country's more talented and energetic people take the reins of these schools. The appointment of Joel Klein as chancellor of New York City's schools is a case in point. Mr. Klein brings a wealth of management experience and public service to the task. He's perhaps best known as the federal antitrust chief who took on Microsoft. While he has little direct background in education, the qualities needed today to run big-city schools go far beyond training for the classroom.
He joins many other "noneducators" who've taken charge of urban schools. Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Diego are among the cities that have gone this route. Success hasn't always been spectacular, but in more instances than not experienced, highly motivated outsiders have shaken up calcified bureaucracies, challenged teachers' unions, empowered school principals, involved parents, and got things moving. That's now expected of New York's new chief, who's in charge of some 1 million students and 100,000 employees.
New York's schools aren't as bad off as those in some big-city districts. For one thing, they've already had a radical shakeup. The state legislature in June gave Mayor Michael Bloomberg control of the schools, centralizing authority and accountability. The board of education was replaced by a much less powerful advisory committee.
Also, New York's schools long have included some of the most rigorous and innovative urban schools. The trouble is, even with those stars, the city still has a 30 percent dropout rate and its share of failing institutions. Klein will have to figure out how to spread the tools and the desire for excellence.
Will Klein have the political backing and the resources he needs? His boss, Mayor Bloomberg, has firmly tied his political future to improving the schools. They should prove a dynamic team if they keep their ringing commitments to give all the city's children keys to a brighter future.