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.
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.
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.
"The nontraditional has become traditional," says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "It's almost as if educators need not apply." Ms. Weingarten says that she's open to noneducators – especially if paired with top deputies who do have strong education backgrounds – but that she worries that always looking to business leaders will hurt the profession.
Other critics are more blunt. "Yes, a superintendent should have a background in education," says Diane Ravitch, author of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." "There are very specific issues ... having to do with curricula, instruction, pedagogy, relations.… Education is not a business."
The idea behind mayoral control of schools is that getting rid of an elected school board streamlines and speeds up the decisionmaking process and offers a clear line of accountability.
It was pioneered in Boston in the early 1990s under Mayor Thomas Menino, who was reelected a year ago to his fifth term. But there aren't many examples of how it will fare under transitioning mayors, as is happening in Washington and Chicago.
In Washington, Mayor Adrian Fenty was voted out at least in part over opposition to the controversial reforms of Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who resigned shortly after his primary loss. In Chicago, Daley, who will be replaced next year, is letting his successor name a permanent schools CEO to replace Mr. Huberman.
"People have in too facile a way interpreted mayoral control to mean stability," says Jeffrey Henig, an education professor at Columbia University's Teachers College. "What the D.C. case in particular demonstrates is that it's no guarantee."
Professor Henig emphasizes that mayoral control has often been so tied to powerful mayors that it's hard to imagine how it will fare as they leave.
"What proponents never thought much about is what happens when dealing with weaker mayors," says Frederick Hess, the American Enterprise Institute's director of education policy studies, citing Washington as an example.
Perhaps the biggest question facing these cities is whether the reforms will be retained under the new leadership.
Some of that, of course, will depend on the successors, but also on the reforms themselves.
In Washington, where Ms. Rhee fought hard to change the contract with the local teachers union (making it easier to fire teachers, among other things), "these changes are fairly deeply embedded now," says Mr. Hess.
In the meantime, the market-driven reforms popular with leaders like Klein and Rhee represent the direction in which much of education policy is moving, and most observers expect them to continue.
"Under these three mayors, the public saw big, irrefutable achievement gains," says Mr. Schnur, referring to Bloomberg, Daley, and Mr. Fenty. "I think there's a very strong foundation ... on which to build."