New York Schools Chancellor: A Brief History

Sarah Laskow | November 24th, 2010

Cathleen Black

Michael Bloomberg is used to getting his way. It’s not clear that he has another candidate in mind to head the city’s school system, now that it’s becoming clear that Cathie Black doesn’t cut it for state education commissioner David Steiner.

Steiner said yesterday he would consider granting Black a waiver if Bloomberg would appoint an educator as her second-in-command. But that’s not the way the mayor tends to operate. As The New York Times wrote yesterday, “Mr. Bloomberg has said that if Ms. Black is not approved, he is not certain any other qualified candidate would want the job.”

It’s strange, really, that at a time when education is increasingly seen as a career path for the best and the brightest, that Mayor Bloomberg can find no one with both the managerial chops and a background in education available to head the largest school district in the country. The mayor has chafed at the idea that someone would need experience with schools to run a school district, but this spate of school leaders lacking experience in education is unprecedented in the city’s history.

The Chancellor’s position has existed since 1898, and in its early years it was one of the most plum jobs in the city, one that men at the peak of their careers took up and left only to retire, if they could manage it.

The school districts of New York, Brooklyn, and the surrounding municipalities were collected together in the Progressive Era fervor that followed decades of Tammany Rule. Its first few leaders — the position was then called City Superintendent of Schools — were men with deep educational experience. In 1896, the Times described the ideal candidate to head the system: “He should be able, broad-minded, and high-minded, trained in the principles and methods of education, in sympathy with its highest purposes, and capable of commanding the confidence and the loyalty of the teaching force” — an antidote to the “small intrigues and petty politics that infected the department in Tammany times.”

The first superintendent, William H. Maxwell, had started his career as a newspaper reporter, but by the time he was elected to the superintendent’s office, he had been a teacher and served on Brooklyn’s Board of Education. He led the school district for 20 years. His successor, Dr. William L. Ettinger lost his job when Mayor Mike Hylan was voted into the officer, but the third superintendent, Dr. William O’Shea, stayed in office for a decade, until he reached in 1933 the mandatory retirement age of 70. Time Magazine reported, “Dr. O’Shea has been a public schoolman for 46 years….[He] is kindly, gentle, petulant when criticized, sometimes in poor health and now poor in eyesight…. Superintendent O’Shea has publicly said: “I am no glutton for power.””

But from the 1960s on, leading New York’s school system was hardly a position to be coveted. Desegregation roiled the system; teachers went on strike; and communities took greater control over individual schools districts. Chancellors like Harvey Scribner and Irving Anker went on to quiet jobs in academia after leaving the city’s employ.

In the past decade, however, education reform has taken on a new prestige, drawing the interest of top students and ambitious politicians. And it is perhaps because of that new shimmer that non-educators like Black are interested in taking on schools. Working in education is no longer a self-contained career path, or a dead end. If a stint with Teach for America can land a twenty-something at Goldman Sachs, then it’s not unreasonable to think that a stint at the Department of Education can land a sixty-something in the mayor’s office.

Unfortunately for Cathie Black, that’s not how the people who’ve dedicated their careers to education—the people who have her fate in their hands—see it.