NEW YORK — The new chancellor of the nation's largest public school system attended Catholic schools as a child, sent her children to a private boarding school, and lists her service on a charter-school advisory board as her only educational-leadership pedigree.
If Hearst Magazines Chairwoman Cathie Black's predecessor — also a non-educator but credited with improving New York City schools — is any example, that hole in the resume doesn't disqualify her.
Her appointment this week as New York schools chancellor "seems to be a continuation of Mayor Bloomberg's predisposition toward choosing people that he views as good managers regardless of their expertise in education," said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College.
A billionaire media entrepreneur himself, Michael Bloomberg had no experience in government when he first ran for mayor in 2001. He's now in his third term.
Like his 2002 appointment of outgoing Chancellor Joel Klein, Bloomberg's choice of Black reflects his conviction that private-sector savvy is the best qualification for a leadership role in city administration.
Klein, a lawyer who served as an assistant U.S. attorney general in the Clinton administration, had no background in education when he took over the department in 2002. During his eight-year tenure, he closed 91 underperforming schools, opened 474 new ones and ended so-called social promotion for failing students.
Bloomberg and Klein said rising scores on standardized tests proved their methods were working, but state education officials said in the spring that student progress on the statewide tests had been overstated because the tests had become too easy.
Unlike Black, raised in Chicago, Klein grew up in New York City and attended public schools. As chancellor, he often clashed with unions and with parent groups that complained of being denied a role in running the schools.
Black's appointment to the $250,000-a-year job will require a waiver from the state Education Department because she is not an educator. She will take over when Klein leaves before the new year to take a position with News Corp.
Reformers who share Bloomberg's tough-love education philosophy said her background is a plus.
"Having someone who doesn't have an education background is essential," said Jeanne Allen, founder of the Center for Education Reform, an organization that supports charter schools and education vouchers. "When you've been in the system you tend to believe, even if you're critical of systems, that they're there for a reason. We need someone who is willing to start fresh."
Other non-traditional leaders of public school systems in recent years have included former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, superintendent of Los Angeles schools from 2001 to 2006, and Mark Roosevelt, a former Massachusetts state legislator who led Pittsburgh schools.
"You have systems in America where you cannot maintain the status quo," said philanthropist Eli Broad, whose foundation donates millions of dollars to U.S. schools. "You need change. You need fresh thinking."
As New York City's chancellor, Black will be charged with improving test scores and graduation rates while handling difficult negotiations with the teachers union, whose contract expired more than a year ago.
Union leaders greeted her appointment with cautious optimism.
"I look forward to working with Ms. Black, teachers union head Michael Mulgrew said. "As a teacher, I will help in any way I can to improve the education for the children of New York."
Principals union head Ernest Logan said he would read Black's 2007 book, "Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life)."
Black, who was president of USA Today for eight years starting in 1983, wrote in her book about meeting the newspaper's staff.
She was "a female, non-newspaper person and an absolutely unknown quantity to these people. ... As I looked around the room, I could feel the questions in the air. Was I a savior, a marketing genius who could turn the paper around? Or would I be a flop?"
People know Black from her earlier years said Wednesday that she could be just the person for the New York job.
"I think she's qualified to do almost anything," said Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today. "She certainly did a superb job for us."
Supporters including the president of Black's alma mater, Trinity Washington University, said she is familiar with issues confronting 21st-century educators.
Trinity was a small Catholic women's college when Black graduated in 1966; other alumnae include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Black served as a trustee in the 1980s and helped guide the college's transformation into a university serving men and women, said Pat McGuire, Trinity's president since 1989.
McGuire said she turned to Black for advice on matters like "how do I bring the faculty along in the change process."
"She said, 'You can't do everything at once. What can you win today?'" McGuire said.
Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi School of Journalism, said Black expanded Hearst magazines including Good Housekeeping, Redbook and House Beautiful while other publishers were downsizing.
"I give her credit for surviving the storm during the economic downturn," he said.Comment on this story
Husni said that he took a dozen magazine journalism students to New York in the spring, and that Black, then president of Hearst Magazines, was the only top executive who agreed to meet with them.
"To their surprise, she was waiting for them at the top of the escalator," he said. "She spent almost an hour with them."
Another booster is Deborah Kenny, the founder of Harlem Village Academies, the chain of charter schools on whose advisory council Black sits.
"What is the most important thing you need in this role?" she said. "It's leadership. You need someone who has leadership experience who can inspire people."