By Jon Schuppe
MANHATTAN — Cathie Black steps into the tumultuous world of public education after a long, successful career as a media executive. The head of Hearst Magazines, she is respectfully known among those who have worked with her as unsentimental, cutthroat and unafraid of confrontation.
But she doesn't necessarily have a history of dealing with politicians, bureaucrats and unions. By choosing her as New York City’s next schools chancellor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signaled that's not what he wants. Instead, he picked someone like him: a wealthy, hyper-driven media mogul.
"She is a superstar manager who has succeeded in the private sector in spectacular fashion and there is no one who knows more about the skills our children will need to success in a 21st century economy," Bloomberg said.
The Department of Education is already staffed with pedagogical experts, he added.
"Our problem is making sure that an organization with a $23 billion budget and 135,000 employees…is able to function."
As president, and then chairman, of Hearst, Black has steered one of the world’s largest magazine publishers — its titles include Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Popular Mechanics, and O, The Oprah Magazine — through an era of profound changes, particularly the steep revenue decline in print journalism and the expansion of publications on the Internet.
Fortune listed Black on its 2007 list of 50 most powerful women in American business, and she is on Forbes’ list of the world’s 100 most powerful women. The Financial Times dubbed her "the first lady of American magazines."
Before running Hearst Magazines, Black was president and publisher of USA Today, and headed the Newspaper Association of America. She became the first female publisher of a weekly consumer magazine as publisher at New York magazine in 1979, which was owned at the time by Rupert Murdoch, who just poached her schools chancellor predecessor Joel Klein. Black started her career selling ads for Holiday.
Black, 66, grew up in Chicago, attended parochial schools there, and now lives on the Upper East Side with her husband, lawyer Tom Harvey. They have a second home in Southampton. They have two children who attended boarding schools in Connecticut.
She is the author of the book Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life), offering advice for women balancing the workplace with home life.
Until now, her most direct connection to New York schools was her role on the advisory board of Harlem Village Academies, a network of charter schools. Black signaled Tuesday that she supported Bloomberg’s plan to expand the number of charter schools in New York City.
"We’ll continue to give parents more options," she said, "by creating new schools over the next three years, including 100 new charter schools."
Black also said she was taking her cue from goals laid out by Bloomberg at a recent NBC News Education Summit. She said students must become more college-ready and more tech-savvy and that city schools need to form new partnerships with businesses, non-profits and universities to better align curriculum with real-world needs.
Like her predecessor Joel Klein, Black does not meet the state's required minimum of three years of education experience to be certified for the school chancellor job, so she will need a waiver from the state before the appointment is official.
Critics of Joel Klein and of charter schools said they were skeptical of Black.
"You don't hire a plumber to fix a flat tire," said State Sen. Bill Perkins of Harlem. "We don't have an educator with the top of the line credentials that our students deserve. It's a smack in the face to the 1.1 million kids in the school system and their parents."
Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, noted that the outgoing chancellor, Joel Klein, was a government lawyer with no experience in leading an educational institution, and neither does Black.
"It is unfortunate that once again, the mayor has chosen someone with no educational experience, except for sitting on the board of a charter school with teacher attrition rates of 42 to 71 percent, and a student suspension rate of 62 percent."
Mona Davids, founder of New York Charter Parents Association, said she was surprised by Black’s appointment, citing the same statistics that Haimson did. She added, "And, the board meeting are not public. Black sits on a board that is not accountable, that is not transparent, so for me it doesn’t bode well."
Harlem Village Academies has been praised by Bloomberg, and was given an overall grade of B in the education Department of Education’s 2009-2010 progress report. The school has not returned calls for comment.
On Tuesday, Black spoke vaguely about supporting city teachers, saying, "they deserve our support as we move forward with change and reform."
She also acknowledged that she has little experience dealing with unions, who have resisted Klein’s approach to charter schools.
But if history is any indication, Black will not back down from such fights.
At Hearst, Black was known as someone who did not avoid confrontation. She preferred to deliver big news — bad and good — in person. When she closed a magazine, she gathered staffers around and told them they were losing their jobs.
She said she’s up to the new challenge.
"I have no illusions about this being an easy next three years," she said.
Jordan Heller, Jill Colvin, Leslie Albrecht and Jeff Mays contributed reporting.