Our Loss, Obama’s Gain

As President-elect Barack Obama begins to assemble tough, pragmatic problem-solvers for his team, he ought to consider Joel Klein. We cannot think of anyone more qualified to be secretary of education than New York’s schools chancellor. He has just the right mix of abrasiveness and charm to take on this important task. We’re hesitant to lose him, because he has done a remarkable job in New York. But if he can do for the nation what he has done in New York, we’ll all be better off.

Mr. Klein, of course, took over as chancellor of the city’s new Department of Education in 2002, after newly elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg used his political muscle to scrap the patronage haven that was the old Board of Education, replacing it with a mayoral agency under his direct control.

As the first chancellor of the post-board era, Mr. Klein has presided over rising test scores, an end to the counterproductive practice of social promotion, the creation of smaller high schools and the expansion of charter schools. Public school parents and students have more choices, greater opportunities and brighter prospects now than they did under the old system.

Mr. Klein’s success is a tribute to his determination and vision, but that would have only gotten him so far. New York has had other chancellors who were just as determined. The secret ingredient of his tenure has been his nontraditional background: He was the chairman and chief executive officer of Bertelsmann Inc., the giant media company, before Mr. Bloomberg tapped him for the schools job. Before his stint with Bertelsmann, Mr. Klein served as an assistant attorney general with the U.S. Department of Justice.

In other words, Mr. Klein is not a career educator, at least in the traditional, bureaucratic sense. That allowed him to see problems, and solutions, that others might have missed or simply dismissed as unworkable. His boss, Mr. Bloomberg, also happens to be a nontraditional mayor—it’s no coincidence that the two men have worked so well together, and produced such noteworthy success.

When this newspaper endorsed Mr. Obama in the New York primary—the first major print organization to do so—we recognized him as a man who was not wedded to the politics and disputes of the past. We saw him as a candidate ready to challenge conventional approaches to the nation’s deep-seated problems.

The American people ratified that judgment on Nov. 4. Now, the president-elect has a chance to demonstrate that he is ready to tackle the nation’s education system in new and interesting ways. Hiring Joel Klein is one way to show that the Obama administration is ready to explore and implement educational policies for the new century.

The national teachers’ unions may oppose Mr. Klein’s promotion, but they would, wouldn’t they? Part of Mr. Klein’s appeal is his willingness to challenge the unions for control of the classrooms. His impatience with outdated work rules and other anachronisms has allowed him to create stronger schools and better student performance.

Yes, we’d hate to lose him. But our loss would be the nation’s gain.