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Expose: Former NYC School Chancellor Joel Klein Is Not Telling the Whole Truth About His Personal History

By telling half-truths about his rise out of "poverty," the former NYC schools chancellor is undermining faith in public education and its teachers.
 
 
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“Sleight of Hand,” an article in the November-December issue of The American Prospect, describes how federal, state, and local housing policies, including the public housing program, were designed a half-century ago to segregate our major metropolitan areas, and how the residential patterns created by public policy at that time persist to this day.

The article does so by way of describing the childhood of Joel Klein, former New York City schools chancellor and now C.E.O. of a Rupert Murdoch company selling technology and software to public schools. Klein has often used his life story to prove an educational theory – that poor quality teachers are the cause of disadvantaged children’s failures. The life story is that he grew up poor, in public housing, “a kid from the streets” with little interest in education until a high school teacher “saw something that I hadn’t seen in myself.” And this life story, Klein and his allies imply, proves that if only disadvantaged students today had the kind of teacher from whom he had benefited, they too would excel and succeed.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says, “Klein knows, as I do, that great teachers can transform a child’s life chances—and that poverty is not destiny. It’s a belief deeply rooted in his childhood, as a kid growing up in public housing. … He understands that education is …  the force that lifts children from public-housing projects to first-generation college students.”

As an education policy analyst, I had heard Joel Klein tell this story about his deprived childhood many times during the last decade. But I never really paid attention. Then, a few years ago, I started to research the history of residential racial segregation, attempting to understand how it came to be that many low-income African-American children are concentrated in urban ghettos where their disadvantage is so overwhelming that even the best teachers and schools cannot overcome it. I learned that 60 years ago when Joel Klein was growing up, public housing projects like his had been constructed not for low-income people but for two-parent middle class families with stable employment histories and solid credit. Unlike the public housing projects we know today, rents in these projects were not government-subsidized; residents paid market-rate rents, sometimes more. After World War II, with returning veterans like Joel Klein’s father flooding an already tight housing market, public housing was often the most desirable residence available for stable employed men and their families. These middle class public housing projects were located in white neighborhoods and intended for whites only (a token number of middle class blacks were admitted in northern city projects), while public housing projects for low income blacks were sited in distant inner-city ghettos in those same northern cities.

Many of these public housing projects did not merely reflect existing patterns of racial segregation; the projects helped to create or reinforce those patterns.

Earlier this year, Joel Klein co-chaired a commission of the Council on Foreign Relations that again denounced our public education system and our teachers as failures - such failures, in fact, that they constitute a threat to our national security. In March, I watched a PBS Newshour report on the commission’s findings, and saw Klein again repeat his story, telling interviewer Jeffrey Brown that he had grown up in public housing in a family where nobody knew about college, but he was rescued from mediocrity, or worse, by great public school teachers. If only there were teachers like that today, he implied, children living in public housing projects would succeed as he has. Listening to this interview, with my new understanding of the history of public housing, I came to suspect that Joel Klein’s oft-repeated autobiography was, at best, misleading.