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Education reform: Have business-savvy officials improved big-city schools?

Big-city mayors have been turning to leaders from the business world to push their agenda of education reform. Critics say schools need leadership from educators.

By Staff writer / November 29, 2010

Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced her resignation Oct. 13 at a news conference that came shortly after the primary loss of Mayor Adrian Fenty – a loss partly attributed to public opposition to her proposed reforms.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Chicago

New York Mayor Michael Bloom­berg surprised many people in early November with his choice of successor to schools chancellor Joel Klein, who announced he was stepping down after an eight-year tenure in which he added charter schools, closed failing schools, and gave more power to principals.

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Cathleen Black, chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, has no background in education – even less than Mr. Klein had in 2002, when Mayor Bloomberg had to make a case for his appointment – and is already encountering stiff opposition.

But in some ways, the selection of a businessperson with little in the way of education experience has become the expected path for big-city mayors trying to radically shake up systems struggling with high dropout rates and low test scores.

Meanwhile, Washington and Chicago, two other high-profile cities closely identified with mayoral control of schools, are also losing their superintendents this fall.

The changing of the educational guard raises questions about both the future of the reforms in these cities and about the success of mayoral control, touted by some reformers as crucial to effecting major changes.

"These are cities where there's been really significant, and in many ways unprecedented, progress in improved schools and better achievement," says Jon Schnur, chief executive officer and cofounder of New Leaders for New Schools, which recruits and trains principals. "This is an important juncture for each of these cities to show that substantial progress under mayoral control can be followed by more progress under leadership change."

New York State law requires the chancellor to hold a certificate in educational leadership and have three years' experience in schools; the education commissioner, David Steiner, is threatening to deny Ms. Black a waiver unless an educator is appointed as her deputy.

Klein, who has both fervent admirers and fierce critics, previously was a lawyer and top Justice Department official. His education experience was limited to a very brief stint teaching math in a public school.

Ron Huberman, who is resigning as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, was president of Chicago's public transit system – and a former chief of staff to Mayor Richard Daley – when Mayor Daley appointed him in 2009. Even Arne Duncan, the CEO he replaced, had no classroom experience. He left to become US secretary of Education.

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