School & District Management

Former Justice Official To Head N.Y.C. Schools

By Karla Scoon Reid — August 07, 2002 3 min read
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Following weeks of speculation, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg last week tapped Joel I. Klein, the former federal official who prosecuted Microsoft, to be the first mayorally appointed chancellor under the new governance system for the New York City schools.

“He is a visionary,” the Republican mayor said as he introduced Mr. Klein during a July 29 news conference in the district’s new headquarters, Tweed Courthouse, located behind City Hall in Manhattan. “And I believe he will deliver to this city what we promised—a quality education for all of our children.”

Mr. Klein has spent the past 18 months in New York City as the chairman and chief executive officer of U.S. operations for Bertlesmann AG, an international media corporation based in Germany. On July 28, the financially troubled company had announced that its chief executive, Mr. Klein’s boss, was resigning.

Before his job at Bertlesmann, Mr. Klein served during the Clinton administration as the assistant attorney general in charge of the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division.

A native New Yorker and a graduate of the city’s public schools, Mr. Klein, 55, said he feels indebted to his teachers. The Harvard University graduate said he was buoyed to run the nation’s largest public school system by the mayor’s commitment to transform the city’s schools.

“This indeed is a historic time,” Mr. Klein said. “I intend to seize the opportunity.”

‘Gutsy Move’

Mr. Klein’s appointment helps set in motion the landmark governance change that gave Mr. Bloomberg, the financial-media mogul who was elected mayor last November, virtually complete control over the 1.1 million-student school system on July 1.

Along with selecting the chancellor, the state legislation gave the mayor the power to appoint eight of the 13 members of the new board of education, which is limited to setting policy and approving the budget. Mayor Bloomberg named his appointed board members on July 18. The presidents of the city’s five boroughs will name the rest of the board members.

Before Mr. Klein can start earning his $245,000 annual salary, New York state Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills must grant the city a waiver because the former lawyer lacks education certification. In 2000, the city received a state waiver to hire Harold O. Levy, the current chancellor and a former corporate lawyer.

Marilyn Gittell, a political science professor at the City University of New York who studies school reform, said Mr. Klein could be “slaughtered” by New Yorkers for having little education experience beyond having taught 6th grade math in Queens briefly.

Still, Ms. Gittell added: “Maybe this guy [Mr. Klein] has more courage and more stamina. Maybe, this is a new variety of change agent.”

Mr. Bloomberg’s decision to pass over professional educators and seasoned New York City public officials for the schools post was a “gutsy kind of out-of-the-box” move, said Robert Berne, a senior vice president of New York University who studies the school system.

“By doing this, Bloomberg says, ‘I need my own person. Someone I have trust in,’” Mr. Berne said.

Now, New York City is counting on Mr. Klein, who was the lead government lawyer in the antitrust case against the Microsoft Corp., to apply his legal skills to educating children. Mr. Klein’s career switch surprised those who know his legal work, but they argued that the former deputy counsel to President Clinton was up to the task.

Described as brilliant, principled, and politically savvy, Mr. Klein mounted cases against American Airlines and General Electric in addition to pursuing a breakup of Microsoft.

Andrew I. Gavil, a professor of antitrust law at Howard University in Washington, said Mr. Klein is “a public servant at heart.” At the Justice Department, he said, Mr. Klein was a skilled manager who was recognized for his ability to identify talented employees.

Mr. Klein also made the antitrust division more aggressive, bringing well-thought-out cases, said Robert D. Dinerstein, the associate dean for academic affairs and a professor of law at American University in Washington. And although he held what can be a “lightning rod” position, Mr. Klein faced few vocal critics, Mr. Dinerstein noted.

That’s a record Mr. Klein may not continue to enjoy as the leader of a big, politically volatile school system plagued by poor student test scores and chronic budget crises.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2002 edition of Education Week as Former Justice Official To Head N.Y.C. Schools

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