Is David Steiner the “Greatest American Hero?” Can He Find a Leader to Navigate the NYC School System in These Treacherous Times?

 Who is David Steiner?

 The Commissioner of Education is the chief education officer for the hundreds of school districts and thousands of schools in New York State. He is appointed by the Regents, fifteen individuals selected by a joint meeting of the two houses of the state legislature to serve on the Board of Regents, a body created in the 18th century. The Regents set educational policy for the State. 
Education in New York City seems apart from the rest of the state, most teachers would be hard pressed to name the commissioner, that is until a few days ago.


Every year at the UFT Spring Conference at Operation Soapbox an education leader, maybe the chancellor, or a major deputy answers questions at a breakfast meeting before a thousand or so early risers. This year David Steiner and his deputy John King faced the crowd. Steiner was an unusual choice for commissioner, rather than working his way up the education bureaucracy he came from the college ranks, Dean of Education at Hunter College, a graduate of Harvard and Oxford, Steiner has a glittering resume.

Operation Soapbox oftentimes has an edge, teachers, not infrequently frustrated, a tad angry, bombard the education leader with tough questions. Steiner was a breath of fresh air, straightforward, charming, with his slight British accent he won over the suspicious, Kleined-out audience. 

In his first year he negotiated a total revamping of the teacher evaluation system, a charter school expansion law and garnered the golden ring, $700 million in Race to the Top dollars. Quite a year! 

Steiner became the man in the spotlight, the man at the eye of the hurricane when the mayor announced the resignation of Joel Klein and his appointment, well, almost appointment of Cathie Black. All she needs is a waiver from, yup, David Steiner.

The wave of opposition to Ms. Black, lead by article after article in the NY Times, was unanticipated by the mayor. In the Quinnipiac poll 2/3 of New Yorkers oppose her appointment, they feel she is unqualified.

Steiner rapidly appointed the required committee to make a recommendation to him, he has the final word. 

In this cynical of all worlds everyone, from the NY Times through the dailies to the man on the street thought the “fix was in.”  Three of the eight committee member were former Klein appointees and one leads an organization that feasts on Bloomberg largesse. 

Lo and behold, the committee votes: 4 against, 2 in favor and 2 “not at this time.” 

Is Cathie Black out, or, in? 

From the brief comments made after the meeting apparently the committee requires a chief academic officer-type to lead the department on the education side while Ms. Black, as chancellor, leads on the financial/management side, at least that’s my understanding. 

Detroit currently has that model, although the chief financial officer in Detroit is appointed by the state and the chief education and accountability officer is appointed by the school board, it has been a “bumpy” marriage.

The current deputy chancellors, with the exception of Eric Nadelstern, have limited experience and were Klein creations. 

Can Steiner find an educational leader with impeccable credentials willing to enter into a marriage, well, let’s say a liaison with Ms. Black?   

Hovering in the background is the mayor, the almost jilted father of the bride, angry would be too mild a term. 

A true humpty-dumpty scenario, can “all the King’s horses and all the King’s men,” put this dilemma together again? 

Black could solve the dilemma by stepping aside, or, Steiner could “select” one of the existing Klein appointed deputies, or, maybe he can find that John Dewey-like educational leader who can, hand in hand with Cathie, lead the New York City school system. 

All this taking place as the clock ticks toward a yawning budgetary crisis … does Harrison Ford have education credentials, we could really use Indiana Jones to get us out of this!!  

Or, is David Steiner really Ralph Hinkley, “The Greatest American Hero,” a special education teacher with super powers.

  We need a miracle worker.


2 responses to “Is David Steiner the “Greatest American Hero?” Can He Find a Leader to Navigate the NYC School System in These Treacherous Times?

  1. I reserve judgement until the commissioner makes his official proclamation.


  2. Certainly an interesting scenario. I think it is understating it to say that even if the result is the compromise Steiner outlined, it is a rejection of the Mayor’s assumption that he can simply “will” it into “being.” NYC is not a kingdom and the Mayor is not the king. While Mr. Bloomberg probably thinks his “subjects” are being unruly, New Yorkers based their opposition to his nominee for Schools Chancellor not on politics, but on the facts that made her uniquely unqualified. Personally I hope Mr.Steiner chooses someone else to lead (not run) the schools, but I take great solace in our having reminded the Mayor (yet again) that he is not a monarch.


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