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How much distance is there between Bloomberg and Klein?

There’s an argument raised in Elissa Gootman’s long-anticipated profile of Chancellor Joel Klein that deserves more reporting. That’s the idea that Klein, though he was hired by Mayor Bloomberg and serves at the mayor’s pleasure, is actually different from the mayor in terms of personality and policies.

The most vociferous spokeswoman for this view is Randi Weingarten, who for several years now has been differentiating between Bloomberg, the good-guy pragmatist she can work with, and Klein, the ideologue who alienates teachers. She uses the distinction to illustrate a larger point she makes on the national stage, about the importance of finding a “third way” in which so-called reformers, who often criticize teachers unions, work collaboratively with unions to improve public schools.

Weingarten’s distinction became most prominent when the mayor announced he’d seek a third term. While many of the teachers, parents, and education advocates opposed to Bloomberg’s school reforms were enraged by this possibility, Weingarten was softer on the mayor. She reserved her raised-voice fury for Klein. “The discussion on mayoral control has changed significantly with the prospect of Joel Klein being the chancellor for the next four years,” she told me the next month, adding:

I’ve heard a lot of debate and conversations about this, and it has actually changed the debate on mayoral control, when people think about who will be the chancellor for the next four years. And when they think it’s going to be Joel Klein as chancellor, I’ve heard lots of people talk about the need to have far more stringent checks and balances.

But is there really much distance between Klein and Bloomberg? Maybe Bloomberg strikes a somewhat more conciliatory public persona, or at least is more polite during his meetings with Weingarten. But how does he act privately? Does he ever pull the reins on Klein’s more radical proposals?

The best evidence of a private disagreement between the men that I can recall reporting actually leans in the opposite direction: The mayor wanted to know if he and Klein could bring to New York a teacher pay plan like the one Michelle Rhee, the D.C. schools chancellor, has floated, where teachers can forgo tenure protections for the possibility of getting a higher salary. The plan has raised the ire of Weingarten, who as national union president represents D.C. teachers, too. Klein told the mayor that such a plan would not be possible in New York.

I reported on the conversation after Rhee recounted it in a recent speech:

Rhee said the model came up in a recent chat with Klein, who she said she speaks to regularly to share “best practices” and to commiserate. Klein told her that Mayor Bloomberg had asked if they could bring the red/green plan to New York. “Apparently Klein said to him, ‘Not even you have enough money to do all of that in New York City,’” she said. [Klein confirmed the conversation through a spokesman.]

Gootman’s story offers another piece of evidence in the birds-of-a-feather camp. Referring to Klein’s recent Albany charm offensive — which hasn’t lost steam, by the way; my understanding is that at this very moment, he’s breakfasting with a lawmaker — Gootman writes:

In some ways, his late-hour public-relations push with Albany mirrors Mr. Bloomberg’s recent quest to court party leaders in pursuit of a ballot line: both have frayed relations through years of disdaining routine politicking as beneath them.

Lawmakers I’ve spoken to echo this point. “I don’t think it’s about Klein. I don’t really think he’s the problem,” said Mark Weprin, an Assemblyman in Queens who sits on the education committee. “Everyone I talk to says the mayor is with him on everything. The mayor is behind him.”

Investigating the argument that Klein and Bloomberg are different is important, especially if the rumor of the year turns out to be true, and Weingarten really does manage to negotiate Klein’s departure as a chip in her mayoral control talks. Weingarten denies she is pushing for such a deal. When she announced the union’s proposal to revise mayoral control recently, she emphasized to reporters that it was not a “bargaining position,” but the plan she really thinks is best. Of course, it’s still possible that Klein could go, especially given that more people appear to be joining the Klein-as-the-problem story line.

The mayoral control supporter Kathryn Wylde, of the business community’s Partnership for New York City, told this to Gootman:

“In his passion to focus on correcting the inequities in the system, he has antagonized people who feel they are making a positive contribution,” said Kathryn S. Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group that supports mayoral control. “When somebody becomes a zealot, it has its pluses and minuses. I think it causes him to be impatient and combative, in ways that clearly have been hard for others in the system.”

UPDATE: I spoke to Wylde this morning, and she tells me that she agrees with the mayor that Klein is the best chancellor the city has ever had. She said she meant her comment in the Times as an explanation for why others have criticized Klein — not as a criticism itself. “I understand the problem people have with Joel, because he is a man on a mission. He has run over more than a few vested interests in the process of achieving that mission,” she said. The radical nature of his efforts to change public education are what explain antipathy toward him, she said; not his own personality.

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