I don't know why the front page of the New York Times is calling NYC schools chancellor Cathie Black's departure "surprising." Was anything more predictable? Over the past year, in cities from Newark to Washington, D.C. to Denver to New York, neighborhood protest movements arose to push back against the same few controversial policies being pursued by reform-minded mayors: charter school co-locations within public school buildings, neighborhood school closings, and more test-driven instruction.
Without getting into the merits and drawbacks of this agenda, the politics here have been clear for some time: There is absolutely no conensus among public school parents either in favor or against such changes. Neighborhoods are attached to the institutions that have served them for generations, regardless of whether these institutions are labeled as "failing." And sadly, the trend of school co-location in space-strapped urban centers has set charter school and neighborhood school communities in competition with one another, instead of encouraging a productive relationship of sharing best practices.
It seemed self-evident that, politically, the best person for Mayor Bloomberg to appoint to be the face of his education agenda would be someone who could soothe anxieties around race, class, neighborhood autonomy, and instructional best practices. Cathie Black was, almost comically, the opposite of all that. A publishing executive with no personal or professional experience with any public school sytem–let alone with the incredibly complex New York City public school system–Black sent her own two children to private boarding school in Connecticut, and had attended parochial schools herself. As my friend Elizabeth Green just noted on WNYC, one of Black's first comments upon visiting New York City school buildings was that they seemed "clean."
Black's replacement, Dennis Walcott–currently Deputy Mayor for Education and Community Development–has a very different biography. He attended Queens public schools during the integration and community control struggles of the 1970s, so comes to the job with a deep appreciation of the difficult history of the New York City schools. A social worker, Walcott worked as a kindergarten teacher before pursuing a career in youth and anti-poverty advocacy, eventually serving as CEO of the New York Urban League.
Tellingly, Walcott has spoken clearly about the importance of neighborhoods and communities in urban policy-making. Here's what he said in a Q&A with the Department of Education's website:
"Just being from a neighborhood—I have a really clear perspective of neighborhood life and issues of neighborhoods and what that means. I haven’t moved too far from where I grew up so there’s still that balance of working class/middle class neighborhood and what that meant and what it reflects of the City. I think that’s always been a part of me and will always be a part of me so I’ve never moved away from that."