Joel I. Klein became New York City schools chancellor in July 2002 after serving in the highest levels of government and business. As Chancellor, he oversees more than 1,500 schools with 1.1 million students, 136,000 employees, and a $21-billion operating budget.
Mr. Klein’s comprehensive education reform program, Children First, is transforming the nation's largest public school system into a system of great schools.
Before Mr. Klein became Chancellor, he was chairman and chief executive officer of Bertelsmann, Inc., and chief U.S. liaison officer to Bertelsmann AG from January 2001 to July 2002. Bertelsmann, one of the world’s largest media companies, has annual revenues exceeding $20 billion and employs more than 76,000 people in 54 countries.
From 1997 to 2001, Mr. Klein was assistant attorney general in charge of the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division. Serving one of the longest tenures ever as head of the 700-lawyer division, Klein led landmark cases against Microsoft, WorldCom/Sprint, Visa/Mastercard, and General Electric, prevailing in a large majority of cases. Mr. Klein was widely credited with transforming the antitrust division into one of the Clinton Administration’s greatest successes. He also served as Acting Assistant Attorney General and as the antitrust division’s principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General. His appointment to the U.S. Justice Department came after Klein served two years (1993-95) as deputy counsel to President William J. Clinton.
Question: How do you see the state of public education in the U.S.?
Joel Klein: So you can look at this from so many different points of entry. Let’s take an obvious one. If a doctor went to sleep 50 years ago and woke up today, nobody would allow that doctor in a hospital to do surgery.
But if a teacher went to sleep 50 years and woke up today, and she were a good teacher, people would be excited to have her in the classroom. Education is a kind of area that really lacks innovation, lacks entrepreneurship, and lacks dynamic thinking, it’s very homogonous. The debates are so arid, how long are we going to have the same debates, you got to find the perfect curriculum, you’ve got to be able to have this class size versus that class size, you need to invest more in this or a little less in that.
Those are important debates, don’t get me wrong. But those debates are absolutely inconclusive and aren’t going to get to the issues that I’ve been hoping to be able to effectively communicate here, which is that if you reward mediocrity, if you pay people whether they do a great job or they do a poor job, if longevity of service is the most important factor in divvying up the benefits in this system, then the system won’t work.
You don’t know systems that work and which aren’t built on meritocracy in which excellence isn’t really the thing that people are searching for and which excellence is rewarded and which the toughest assignments are oftentimes the assignments you want your most talented people to go to.
All of those things are misaligned in public education and they’ve been for a long time. In large measure, public education is built on a civil service, trade union industrial model, and we need to move it to a professional model in which excellence is rewarded, incompetence is properly dealt with.
The toughest jobs attract highly talented people so that our poorest kids get a fair shot at a great education. And those kinds of phenomena have to be addressed and addressed meaningfully. They’re very painful to address because they will require a rethinking of the way we deliver educational services in the United States. But unless and until we get serious about that, I don’t think we’re going to really see the kind of shifts that we want to see.
It’s 54 years after Brown versus Board [of Education] when the Supreme Court not only outlawed segregation, but promised every kid in America an equal educational opportunity. It’s 25 years after a nation at risk in which all the problems we’re talking about today were identified.
And yet today in America, education is not equitably distributed. Where you grow up, what your family background is, affects the quality of the education you get. And that’s in large measure because we haven’t really come to grips with the issue of the equitable distribution of adult talent in a system. And until we address that, we’re going to continue to have the same kind of, in my view, arid discussion about yesterday’s policies and yesterday’s programs.
Question: What do you think is the right balance between public and private oversight of education?
Joel Klein: In the end, education is a government service and the government has got to be responsible. It cannot outsource it, it cannot decide that third parties will do it, although you can bring in third parties, as we’ve done in New York City, you can bring in competitive principles, you can bring in accountability and you can bring in innovation. All of those things are critical to the transformation, but in the end the government has got to be accountable.
If you think about it, it’s so weird, we’ve have school boards, basically, running education. And they’ve been guided by the politics of paralysis. If you read Matt Miller, who I’m sure is one of the real powerful thinkers in this area, he’s got a piece [titled “First, Kill All the School Boards”] in the Atlantic Magazine in January  in which he says: The first thing we do is kill all the school boards, because what you need is the leadership of a Mayor in a city, and the Mayor is the single most important government official in the city, and you want the Mayor out there, responsible, accountable, aligning the budget with the mission, and standing before the city and saying “Education is our number one priority.”
So that, to me, is the right governmental structure and then the group of people you want to bring in to do the work, it’s got to be a group of people that has the mix of talent. If you choose them all from one side, if you have all managerial types with no educational expertise, that won’t work. By the same token, if you have all educators with no managerial expertise, who don’t get innovation, don’t get differentiation and talent, don’t get the use of incentives to reward excellence, and to make sure that incompetence, is dealt with. If those things aren’t a part of the equation, you’ll continue to get the results we’re now getting, 54 years after Brown [i.e. Brown v. Board of Education].