Quiet, Please! Cathie Black’s Gaffe

Schools Chancellor Cathie Black has made a point of being very visible and very audible since taking over from Joel Klein several weeks ago. We understand why. She has been trying to show her critics that she has a common touch, that she can relate to the real-life issues that the city’s one million students face every day. But now is the time for Ms. Black to do fewer photo ops and less talking. Visibility hasn’t exactly worked in her favor.

Ms. Black’s recent comments about an impending shortage of classrooms played into the hands of critics–of her, and of Mayor Bloomberg–who see her as a dilettante whose only qualification for the chancellorship was her acquaintance with the mayor. Speaking at a meeting of parents and elected officials in Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office last week, Ms. Black responded to a parent’s concern about overcrowding with a less-than-helpful wisecrack.

“Could we just have some birth control for a while,” she said. “It could really help us all out a lot.”

That kind of humor might prompt a chuckle or two in the slick magazine world, but in a meeting with public-school parents who have legitimate concerns about classroom overcrowding, Ms. Black would have been better served if she’d kept a lid on her boardroom wit.

If that weren’t enough, she went on to compare the decisions she must make about classroom space to a series of “Sophie’s Choices,” a reference, of course, to the William Styron novel about a mother forced to choose which one of her children will live and which one will die in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

This page supported Ms. Black’s appointment as chancellor, arguing that she was a superb administrator with a track record of success and accountability. Continued reform of the city’s schools depends in part on creative, outside-the-box administrators like Ms. Black who are not hostage to the status quo. If we wanted the same old school system, we’d have a chancellor stamped with the union label.

That said, Ms. Black has to live up to her side of the bargain. She has to bring not just her skills and ideas to the job, but a seriousness of purpose and a sensitivity to her constituency. The mayor expended no small amount of political capital on her behalf with the expectation that she would prove her critics wrong.

After just a few weeks on the job, Ms. Black regrettably is better known for her insensitivity than her creativity. That has to change, now. Far too many public-school students are confronted with a stark choice between higher education or life in the streets. Ms. Black is supposed to point them in the correct direction. She won’t do that by making stupid jokes.