F.A.Q.: How does a city make Cathie Black disappear?

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Cathie Black and Joel Klein. (Photo via gothamschools flickr stream.)
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A conversation with Gotham Schools reporter Anna Phillips about the resignation of New York City Schools Chancellor Cathie Black and the announcement of Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott as her replacement. Anna is in New Orleans, along with many other New York-based education reporters, at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

Josh Benson: Are you at all surprised by this abrupt end to the Cathie Black Era?

Anna Phillips: Yes. It's fair to say that rumors have been spreading that City Hall wasn't happy with her and morale is very low at Tweed, but I never expected her ouster. And certainly not while I was in New Orleans—not very considerate. I followed John White down here (OK, I was covering this conference anyway), but it turns out the story was back at home.

Josh: I was just talking to one of your colleagues about that! That it's probably not a coincidence that this announcement was made when the New York education reporters are on the other side of America.

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Anna: I think half, maybe less than half, of the New York City education press corps is here. But everyone else is still at their desks and working the phones. Maybe they knew it wasn't safe to travel. I was actually visiting a New Orleans early-learning center. I had to call a cab (and assure the center director that nothing was wrong) and dash back to the hotel.

Josh: What do you think the connection was between the mayor's (reported) decision to ask for Black's resignation, and the fact that several of her deputies had just resigned?

Anna: I'm not sure how strong that connection is—a lot of those people were ready to go anyway. But it's very possible the mayor saw them lining up to leave and decided that Black's poll numbers weren't the only problem, you know?

Josh: What was the reason for the low morale at Tweed? How much of that had to do with Black's leadership?

Anna: A lot, actually. People there had their qualms with Joel Klein, but they did feel like they were working for someone who spoke the same language as they did and had a vision (though a constantly shifting one) of what he wanted.

After she arrived, a lot of effort had to be channeled to getting her up to speed and I think, no question really, keeping the press at bay. Neither of those two things happened. The press didn't let go of the idea that she was unqualified to do the job and Black didn't get better at talking about what she wanted to do. At the same time, they saw longtime D.O.E. people heading for the door.

So combine all of that with the fact that there's very little money to play around with anymore and maybe not even enough to make the schools run well, and you can see the appeal of working elsewhere.

Josh: So how much does this actually set the department back, between yet another chancellor having to be replaced and the exodus of other education officials that she may or may not have had a part in bringing about?

Anna: I don't think it does set them back. The person who's really suffered here is the mayor, who first had to defend her and now is admitting that he's wrong, which not something he does. The point people should understand is that Dennis Walcott has been calling the shots anyway!

He's well known, he's got a better rapport with parents than most people in the D.O.E. do, and he's been there (in education-administration terms) forever.

It's the kind of choice that might slow people's heart rates after the Cathie Black announcement because at least they'll know what they're dealing with. And there's no question of his committment to education. The man has an equals sign tattooed on his arm. It's not an H.R.C. sign; this is clearly someone who cares about education equality and for whom the achievement gap is not a talking point.

People will dispute the decisions he's made—there are definitely some parents and community activists who are not fans. But they will not mistake him for someone who dabbles in education policy and then retreats to his Upper East Side palace.

I guess I should also add that Walcott and Klein were very close. They would joke about how they talked to each other more than they talked to their wives. Walcott gave Klein's goodbye speech.

Josh: Is that a good thing or a bad thing, the closeness to Klein, in terms of Walcott's ability to do this job? I suppose Black's tenure makes Klein's look perfectly uncontroversial in retrospect. But Klein was not known for universal compability.

Anna: It's not going to score Walcott or the administration any points with parents who were fed up with Klein's reforms, but they're not focused on that. Black was supposed to come in and finish Klein's job, she wasn't supposed to have ideas of her own really, expect maybe when it came to finances and layoffs.

Here's someone who can finish out the mayor's term and can probably do it with more finesse than Klein could. Walcott can work a crowd if he has to and he can be politic.

It will be interesting to see how devoted he actually is to Klein's pet projects. Does he care about the Innovation Zone, or would he rather spend all that money keeping the system intact and layoff-free? And how much does he really want to fight the union on things like the absent teacher reserve and teacher evaluations?

Josh: How has Walcott's relationship been with the union historically, compared to Klein's?

Anna: Quite different. Part of that may be that it wasn't Walcott's job to be adversarial with the unions, but I've heard the president of the teachers union and the principal/administrator union say nice things about him. And C.S.A., the principal's union, put out a statement and they sound quite pleased.

This is from the C.S.A. president, in reaction to the Black news: "Some months ago, I recommended that Dennis be named chancellor and I am delighted that this has happened today."

They feel vindicated, you know? They said you need to have a person with experience in the schools and Bloomberg said no, no, we need a manager. But I also think they're happy because generally, Walcott is seen as someone who is willing to be more incremental than Joel. The U.F.T. was fed up with Klein, they felt he wouldn't bargain, he'd just make demands. I think they're hopeful Walcott will be up for a conversation.

Can I just add how depressing it is that New York City's first female chancellor had this job for, I think, 104 days? Can we just call the next woman the real first?

Josh: Sure, I think that's fair. Black can be represented in history books by an asterisk and a footnote.

So, Walcott. He's already benefiting, as far as the unions are concerned, from the fact that he's got such an easy act to follow.

What about the charter-school people: the Rheeists and Educators4Excellence and, for that matter, the New York Post editorial board? What do they make of Walcott? 

Anna: Most of the reform world was as confused by Cathie Black as the unions and their opposition were. It was one big "what was he thinking?" moment, almost a bonding point.

In the decision to appoint Walcott as her successor they see an actual continuation of Klein's policies. They know Klein and Walcott are very close and they know Walcott has had a hand in everything that's been done up until now. So I think there's relief on their part, too. It's a little like when Rhee was knocked out in Washington and the new mayor appointed her deputy, I think.

Josh: What are the parallels there?

Anna: Kaya Henderson. She has a lot of the reformer cred—he did Teach for America, she worked with the New Teacher Project—so she's got the stamp. But she's not as aggressive as Rhee, at least so far. She's trying to calm things down. At the same time, she's a continuation of Rhee and there was some relief from people on the "reform" side that those policies would not be erased.

Josh: So how much of Walcott's job, at least initially, is just going to be about doing a similar thing, calming people down?

Anna: A lot. Can I say that enough? A lot.

He's addressing all of Tweed this afternoon, along with the press, which is intended to chill people out. They already know who he is but they need to hear how things are going to get better and how he's going to bring stability. He's also going to have to name replacements for Santiago Taveras and John White. And those picks, depending on who they are, will either make people think: OK, I can stay here, my projects and ideas have support, or not.