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From board room to school room, what a leap

Elinor Tatum | 4/12/2011, 5:25 p.m.

What does a 66-year-old white woman from Chicago, who lives on Park Avenue and was the chairman of Hearst Magazines, have in common with New York City's children--especially those that are Black and Hispanic and who are all too often are poor?

Answer:

She will be the new schools chancellor, with the fate of all of our city's public school children in her hands.

She went to parochial school. Her children went to Kent (a fancy boarding school in Connecticut). She makes hundreds, if not millions, of dollars a year in her current position, and she and her family want for nothing. What does she know of kids who have to go to school in the summer just so that they can get a meal?

The last time she walked into a public school was on a visit to the Harlem Village Academy last year.

So, do you see the problem?

Eight years ago, we got Joel Klein as the chancellor. He, too, came from the private sector. He, too, was a wild card. He promised reform. He promised to make the education system better for children of color, yet still our kids are failing.

Too many teachers are not finding the means to connect with our children, and as a result, not enough numbers of the next generation is going to college. And our brightest Black and Brown are being overlooked. The city's specialized schools do not have the diversity that they should have, with some senior classes in these schools having less than a handful of children of color.

We need a change, but is Cathie Black the answer?

What does she know about Black or Brown kids from the inner city? What does she know about public schools? Does she understand that sometimes when there are discipline problems, it stems from a child going to school hungry? Does she know that the only time some of these young people feel safe is in their schools? Does she understand anything about our communities?

She will have $2.3 billion budget with 1.1 million students and over 135,000 employees. Forty percent of the students live in homes where another language besides English is spoken, and thousands of students are new to this country and are being exposed to English for the first time.

What does she have to offer these children? Her expertise as a chairman, president and publisher may come in handy when she is talking to the other corporate big shots that Mayor Bloomberg likes to surround himself with, but what does that have to do with dealing with the future generations of our children?

And why would the mayor again hire someone with so little education experience to manage one of the most complex educational systems in the country, if not the world?

It makes me wonder how he was able to make all those billions of dollars if this is the type of decision making we should expect from him. You put two people in place with almost no training or experience and expect competent decision making. All too often, we didn't see particular competence with Joel Klein, and I guess we shouldn't expect it with Cathie Black.

She will also have to deal with 80,000 teachers, most of whom are in a teachers union. Black has little experience with unions and now she will have to contend with one of the strongest in the nation. She has a huge learning curve ahead of her, and I am not sure she has what is needed to fill this position.

We can only hope that she has some passion for education, and a passion for our youth. If not, she will just be another corporate exec who thought she could save the world by entering the public sector. Let's just hope our kids are not the butt of the joke.