Rudy Crew had more time (four years) and more money (three record budget increases) and more institutional power (via a major school-governance reform enacted in Albany at his request) to improve New York's public schools than any schools' chancellor in memory. Yet more than half of the city's public school students still can't read or do math at grade level. Any assessment of Crew's tenure, therefore, now that the Board of Ed has brought it to a close, must conclude that he got less bang for the taxpayer's buck than his predecessors.
Crew's problem was that he became the captive of the army he was supposed to reform—as can easily happen to a generalissimo. Arriving in New York at a time when innovative, entrepreneurial approaches to public education were getting under way in other cities, he refused to bring any of them to Gotham's schools, because he viewed himself as the protector of the existing system—including its teachers—instead of the children he was duty-bound to serve.
Crew threatened to quit over Mayor Giuliani's modest proposal to offer tuition vouchers for private schools to a few thousand poor kids trapped in wretched public schools. Crew didn't bother to determine the truth of the mayor's assumption that the children would benefit from escaping the public schools. Instead, the chancellor drew a line in the sand. Any funds that would have gone toward private school tuition for those children belonged to his schools. He wasn't about to let all that dough—or the jobs it paid for—get away. He fought almost as hard to derail the creation of independent public charter schools in the state. Too many charters, he feared, might sprout in the city outside of his control. When charter legislation passed, though, he joined the cause, to ensure that any new charters in the city wouldn't become too independent of his system.
What's worse, Crew remained silent about the most formidable obstacle to improving the schools—the "we don't do windows" teachers contract, which makes it impossible to deploy teachers flexibly, or reward merit and remove incompetence. When confronted with yet more evidence that the system is corrupt to the core—school employees doctoring student test results and administrators padding student attendance to get their hands on more state funds—Crew attacked the messenger rather than criticize the teachers.
Almost certainly, one of the superb candidates being mentioned for Crew's job—former chancellor Frank Macchiarola or current chief of Chicago public schools Paul Vallas—will have the energy and vision to do a better job. But Crew's failure should teach us that having to count on finding an extraordinary leader to fix a broken system is much worse than devising a system whose built-in competition provides the invisible hand that assures quality and accountablity.