EDUCATION

Cathie Black Firing: A Blow to Reform's Business Minds?

Thursday's ouster of New York City schools chief Cathie Black prompted a fair share of grimaces inside City Hall and served as vindication for skeptics who had long doubted her thin resume. But her high profile flameout also distressed some of New York's high-profile education philanthropists -- many of whom, like Black, hail from the business sector.

Mayor Bloomberg's appointment of Black to lead the country's largest school system was "a high risk, Hail Mary pass," said Whitney Tilson, a founder of T2 Partners and Tilson Mutual Funds and a board director of the advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform. Tilson noted that even some of the mayor's most ardent supporters inside education reform circles were "scratching their heads" after Bloomberg announced that Black, who held no formal education experience prior to the appointment, would succeed Joel Klein. "We crossed our fingers and thought, 'Maybe the mayor knows something we don't know,'" he said.

Tilson -- who sits on the Democrats for Education Reform board with some of the of the city's leading financial minds -- said he felt it was "not impossible that someone with a business background and no education background could come in and lead the school system."

While he acknowledged that the struggle to reform American education was "at best three steps forward, two steps back," Tilson characterized Black's departure as "a setback," pointing to a series of high profile exits from the NYC Department of Education, including the resignation of top deputy John White, who left for the New Orleans school system. "There has been some permanent damage," said Tilson, "but the reform agenda is still going full speed ahead."

For teacher's unions -- often at odds with many of the city's business and financial elite over the shape of the education reform debate -- Black's failure has provided ammunition to counter the argument that minds outside of the education system might be its best hope for change.

"This is what the business community doesn’t understand: This is a real job, and school systems are complex organizations," said Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers. "An industry focused on a niche market and managing profits with adults is not the same as running a school system."

Weingarten conceded that teachers and educators can -- and should -- learn lessons from outside sectors, but disputed the notion that "the business community knows what to do with education." She adds, "If you look at our international competitors, they don't use the business model" in their education systems.

Black's departure, Weingarten said, "will hopefully moderate” the conversation around reform efforts, "instead of having this scorched-earth debate," one where "someone’s either one hundred percent right or someone's one hundred percent wrong. That it’s a zero sum game. It’s not."

To those business titans who have spent considerable resources advocating for reform, Brian Zied, founder and CEO of the hedge fund Charter Bridge Capital and a board director of the advocacy group Education Reform Now, questioned any parallel drawn between business influence inside the system and advocacy outside of it.

"In my mind, it's two very different issues," said Zied. "It's the difference between being an advocate and being in a position of responsibility, where you have to serve people and make judgments and make decisions."

"Joel Klein did not have a background specifically in education, and he was a tremendously effective chancellor," Zied added.

Weingarten countered that view: "The first year when Klein was chancellor, he was not actually focused on schools and the test scores went up." She added, "There were a bunch of reasons, but it had very little to do with the management of the system paying attention to the system itself."

Black's departure may not necessarily curb the involvement of New York's financial and business minds in education reform, but it has, perhaps, had a cautionary effect. Tilson, for his part, seemed keenly aware of divisions between 'outsiders' and 'insiders'. "I'm concerned that we've not yet built a grassroots network of support both -- for optics and political reasons." Tilson said. "This should not be a movement of wealthy, white hedge fund managers."

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Mr. Zied's name.