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Rudy, We Hardly Knew Ye
By Sol Stern
What's up with Rudy Crew? The schools' chancellor said that after the Thanksgiving holiday he would finally end the widespread speculation about his future and reveal whether he would ask the Board of Education for a contract extension beyond the June expiration date.
Well, Thanksgiving has come and gone, and Crew now says he'll let us know by the end of the year. As a parent with two children in the public schools, I'd like to know what Crew is going to do — but I'm not holding my breath.
More important than Crew's fate is figuring out why he has managed to accomplish so little in the way of institutional reform or academic improvement during his four years here. Then, perhaps, we might know what he or a successor should do to get on top of the problem of our failing schools.
In trying to understand what went wrong, I thought of an exchange I had with Crew at an education forum shortly after he arrived in New York. My question was simple. I wanted to know what Crew thought of offering tuition vouchers for private or parochial schools to at least some of the thousands of poor, minority children hopelessly trapped in our lousy public schools. Crew dismissed my question out of hand. He said he had not come to New York to "dismantle the public school system," but to "defend and improve" it.
Well, there's no doubt he's been great on defense. But that's about it. Unfortunately for the children still trapped in our dysfunctional schools, Crew has all too often confused the interests of the system he manages, including the interests of its employees, with the interests of the children he is duty bound to serve.
Most famously, Crew threw a temper tantrum and threatened to quit over Mayor Giuliani's eminently reasonable proposal to have a few thousand poor children leave their wretched pubic schools for private schools that actually might help them succeed. Crew didn't even bother questioning the mayor's assumption that the children might benefit by such a move. The grand moral principle over which the chancellor seemed to be drawing a line in the sand was that the taxpayer funds that would have paid for the private school tuition for those poor children belonged to his system. He wasn't about to let all that money (or the jobs the money paid for) get away.
Crew lobbied almost as vigorously against legislation creating independent public charter schools as he did against the voucher proposal. His concern was that too many of the charter schools would function outside his control. When he lost that battle and a strong charter school bill passed the Legislature last year, Crew jumped on the bandwagon. He wanted a hand in the creation of as many of the charter schools as possible and wanted to ensure that they were as dependent on his system as they could possibly be.
It's not as if the politicians have denied Crew the tools he himself insisted were necessary to achieve a turnaround. As a result of the new state education legislation he campaigned for, Crew has more power then any of his predecessors. Among other things, he is able to override community school boards and hire and fire district superintendents — and, though the process is still ridiculously tortured, he can move ineffective principals out of their positions.
Thanks to three straight record increases in the Board of Education budget, Crew also has had more money to spend than any chancellor in the city's history — more than $10 billion per year. But with more than half our children still unable to read or do math at grade level, Crew seems to be getting less bang for the taxpayer's buck than any of our other recent chancellors.
Crew has managed to get some things right: ending social promotion for students and supporting the removal of lifetime tenure protection for principals were both long overdue. But he has avoided the single most formidable obstacle to school improvement — the "we don't do windows" teachers contract, which institutionalizes mediocrity and makes it impossible to monitor the productivity or effectiveness of the system's most important employees.
Consider how Crew used his broad new powers and all that extra money to help the kids trapped in our perennially failing schools. Last year, he launched what was widely heralded as a bold initiative to take over and lift up 40 of the worst schools in the city. But with so much at stake for the children, Crew once again demonstrated his proclivity for snuggling up to the system's vested interests, particularly the teachers union.
Almost all the extra money spent on the schools directly managed by Crew went into the pockets of the teachers who already had failed so miserably. The deal Crew struck with the United Federation of Teachers stipulated that in return for staying in the building an extra 40 minutes per day beyond the six hours and 20 minutes called for in the union contract, every single teacher in those schools would receive a 15% salary increase — with a commensurate boost in pension benefits.
Only the most congenital optimist would believe that the children in those schools are about to benefit from those extra 40 minutes. On the other hand, the money spent on the pay increases could have bought as many as 10,000 tuition vouchers of $2,000 each.
There isn't a competitive business in the world that would survive if it were saddled with the same workplace practices that exist in the public school system — no accountability for failure and no reward for excellence. This is the system that Rudy Crew has chosen to defend with such fervor, which is reason enough to welcome his departure.
©1999 New York Daily News
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