For the fourth time in a decade New York's mayor and Board of Education are looking for someone else to save the city's public schools.
But by now they should have learned the lesson that the system will not be cured by an iron chancellor who tries to impose his will on every individual school.
Instead, a chancellor must use his power to take care of the big pictureâ€”insuring that every principal can control what happens in his or her school and giving each the freedom to innovate, free of constricting work rules and bureaucracy.
By that standard, Rudy Crew was an unsuccessful chancellorâ€”and it showed in the schools' results.
Mr. Crew had all the power he wanted. After intense lobbying, the State Legislature rewrote education law, centralizing authority in his office, allowing him to fire superintendents in poorly performing districts. He also had much more money than previous chancellorsâ€”the operating budget now surpasses $10 billion a year.
He had four years in office, twice as long as the average tenure of a superintendent of a big-city school district, and more than enough time for the schools to begin showing improvement. Yet half of the city's students are still not reading or doing math at grade level.
Why didn't the system improve? He failed to extend the fundamental principle of accountability for performance to everyone working in the schools.
To his credit, Mr. Crew worked with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to eliminate lifetime tenure for school principals and to end automatic social promotion for students.
But his innovations stopped there. He ignored promising entrepreneurial approaches now being tried in many other American cities, from vouchers to privatization of services like security and meal preparation. Instead of welcoming any form of competition that would help the children, he largely supported the education bureaucracy.
In March, he threatened to quit over Mayor Giuliani's modest proposal to offer vouchers to a few thousand poor children trapped in wretched public schools. Mr. Crew didn't even argue against the program on its merits, that is, whether or not the children might actually benefit from such a move. Instead, he drew a line in the sand over the principle that taxpayer money should never be used for private education.
Most important, Mr. Crew never used his bully pulpit to rail against the most formidable obstacle to improving schools: the "we don't do windows" teachers contract. This contract gives automatic salary increases and various perks to teachers based on seniority, making it impossible to evaluate the schools' most important employees for their productivity or their effectiveness. Indeed, the contract is a form of social promotion just as destructive as automatic grade promotion is for children.
Now, before selecting a new chancellor, the mayor and the members of the Board of Education should take a little time to think about how to create incentive-driven schools, freed of bureaucratic restraints and crippling work rules. They should certainly have that discussion before rushing off to crown yet another iron chancellor that they expect will somehow, magically, improve more than a thousand schools tied together in a dysfunctional system.
Our education officials should be looking for someone who realizes that centralized, top-down bureaucracies belong to the days of tail fins. That person should be willing to use the power of the office to encourage competition and autonomous schools, and should declare a readiness to fight for a system that rewards productive teachers and weeds out malingerers.
In short, the next chancellor should be someone who would welcome any entrepreneurial approach that might benefit the children, no matter how much it discomfits the employees and how hard their unions fight it.