New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner may allow publishing executive Cathleen Black to become the next schools chancellor on one condition: Mayor Bloomberg appoints a Chief Academic Officer.

Steiner’s suggestion has met with mixed reviews, but a look at other cities with non-educator school leaders shows that the arrangement is not uncommon.

Chicago

In Chicago, whether the schools Chief Executive Officer has a Chief Academic Officer is not up to the mayor or the schools CEO — it’s in the law.

In 1995, when the Illinois state legislature gave Chicago mayoral control of schools, the law also created the position of chief education officer. Styled after corporate boards, the school system’s administration was to be led by a chief executive officer, who did not have to have a background and education, and four other officers, one of whom would be an education expert. The law says:

The chief executive officer shall appoint, with the approval of the Trustees, a chief operating officer, a chief fiscal officer, a chief educational officer, and a chief purchasing officer to serve until June 30, 1999. These officers shall be assigned duties and responsibilities by the chief executive officer.

Unlike in New York, where the chancellor can decide the titles and job descriptions of his (it’s always been a “he”) deputies, these positions are cemented in the law in Chicago. Chicago’s CEO can change the responsibilities that fall under each officer, but the city is legally required to have an educational expert. Since 2001, the city has had two CEOs without much teaching experience and one chief education officer: Barbara Eason-Watkins. She resigned in April and without her in place, some principals say they feel directionless.

San Diego

Members of San Diego’s school board did not making hiring a chief academic officer the condition for bringing in Superintendent Bill Kowba, but they did make it clear that they wanted him to hire one. A piece in Voice of San Diego about the appointment of Nellie Meyer, deputy superintendent for academics, states:

Board members have repeatedly said he would need a strong deputy superintendent to offset his lack of school experience.

San Diego was the first city to have a non-educator superintendent, setting a precedent for the current arrangement. Former Superintendent Alan Bersin, who had worked the local U.S. Attorney, took charge of the schools in 1998 and appointed Tony Alvarado to oversee academics. Looking back, Bersin has said that he needed a co-leader with experience in education. Alvarado made his reputation by improving schools in New York City’s District 2. From an interview with PBS:

Smith: Not being an educator, did you need an educational partner?

Bersin: No question about that. I understood that I wasn’t about to teach teachers about reading and I needed to connect with an educational leader and someone who could educate our system as well as educate me. There was a period of three to four months beginning in March of 1998 when I was both U.S. Attorney and the superintendent designate. I used that opportunity to speak with many people around the country, get suggestions, and met with a couple of perspective candidates, and then found Tony Alvarado.

Detroit

The leadership structure in Detroit is an example of how appointing a chief academic officer as the number two to a schools leader can lead to turf wars with other education officials.

In 2009, Michigan’s governor brought in Robert Bobb, a former city manager, as the Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit’s public schools. A month after his appointment, Bobb, who has no experience in education, named Barbara Byrd-Bennett to be his chief academic and accountability auditor. He put her in charge of revamping the schools’ curriculum and overseeing the hiring and firing of principals while he dealt with the deficit.

Yet Byrd-Bennett’s authority has been challenged by Detroit’s Board of Education, which appointed its own schools superintendent and insists that the board, not Bobb, controls academics. Bobb says that because he controls the schools’ finances, it’s his decision which academic programs get funding.

The turf war is even playing out on the district’s website, which highlights the names of the academic officers appointed by Bobb. The names of the Board of Education-appointed academic leaders are next to them in plain font.