the battle over school choice

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interview: rudy crew

Crew is the executive director of the University of Washington's new Institute for K-12 Leadership. He was chancellor of New York Public Schools for four years, one of the longest tenures of any recent chancellor. While leading the district of 1.1 million students, Crew ended the automatic promotion of failing students, changed the practice of giving lifelong job protection to principals, and persuaded the state Legislature to give the chancellor more say over the appointment of local superintendents. In news accounts, Crew blamed Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for his departure. The two had several disputes, including over a plan favored by the mayor to give public school students taxpayer-funded vouchers to use at private schools.
You've been involved in public policy and education for a long time. Was there a period where people just weren't that interested in the public schools, a period of neglect? In the last couple of years, or even now suddenly, are people are very interested in schools, and paying attention? Does it seem that way to you?

It's fair to say that, during the downturn years in the economy, when the country was really struggling to pay off its debt, to get inflation down, to get unemployment to heal, my sense was that the country basically said, "We've really got to pay more attention to the economic picture of America." We don't necessarily see education as having a front row seat in being able to build a better democracy. We think creating jobs in America is the way to do that. We have conversations about taxes and tax cuts and so on and so forth. There's some tangential conversation about public education, but it's really in the margins.

In the last seven to ten years, the conversation has shifted. Part of that is the economy is doing better, and people are now asking, "How do we actually get people who can take these jobs, and fill them, and do well with them, and help productivity continue to remain steadfast? That has to happen by virtue of the public school system."

. . . Another force has been the fact that there are an awful lot of people who are completely alive with the notion that the public schools really represent a huge asset, a financial asset, a big bonanza, a big payday for the private sector--that maybe it's time to aggregate public schools and figure out ways to make them more competitive, and frankly, more profitable. That has turned into a sort of economic conversation as well. . . .

You were quoted in the New York Times as saying that, as a black man in all good conscience, you could not support even a pilot voucher program. Why is that?

In my 49 years, when I've seen people talk about ideas for public education--and particularly of late--they're really talking about a redistribution of opportunities. They're talking about a redistribution of wealth. I understand that the whole notion of choice has a very, very important and valuable competitive nature. I believe in that nature. I believe in that opportunity.

But I also know that there are schools that already are trying to fight for just getting their roof fixed. They're trying to make sure that they have technology available for some kids, not even for everybody yet, that they have an opportunity to have adequate textbooks and labs for science experiments to be done, on exams that they now have to take.

So to start talking about removing dollars from the base that would otherwise go to support that kind of an instructional high quality program is to walk away from children who are in these schools. And I think that government and public service in general can't walk away from poor, black, Latino . . . poor children in general. . . . The conversation about education, just below the surface, is about standards, and assessment, and curriculum, and so on. Just below that conversation is the real conversation: who will be part of the intellectual capital of this nation? If that school is broken, then fix it. We have enough examples on the ground in this country of poor schools, of failing schools, that got turned around with good leadership, good instruction, wonderful teachers, a committed community, people who put the necessary and right emphasis on instruction.

. . . If you really want to fix the school, you can fix the school. You can fix it very quickly. But I argue that you can also just as easily walk away from it. Now we're going to allow your kids to get out of it. Well, what about the kids who can't find a seat in that other school that presumably is a better school--what about them? Where do they go? What labs do they have? What preparation do their teachers have? What support will their leaders have? What kind of materials and supplies and laboratory equipment and so forth will the kids in that school have? What are you going to do? Are you going to just simply say, "Well, we've gotten a third of your kids out of here, and now the two-thirds of you that are remaining, basically don't need this?" That's absurd. Not only is it absurd, it's insidious. . . .

Is there a public education crisis now?

Certainly [the word "crisis"] would be applicable in some places. But I think it's a misnomer. I think the real enemy here isn't, quote, "public schools in crisis." That makes good camera-ready copy for somebody's journal. But the real issue is the tremendous variation between and among schools. In every city across this country, there's huge variation in the outcomes for kids. There are some that are doing extraordinarily well, and then you have some that are in the same system who are chronic occupiers of that lower rung of achievement.

The enemy in my mind isn't this "crisis." It's this tremendous variation. You need to look at what decreases the variation, when you really look at what would allow for all kids to move to the level of performance where many of our children already are. I think that's actually a more honest statement about it. We have lots of kids that are doing extraordinarily well. We've got some kids in the middle, and then you've got an enormous number of kids on the bottom end.

When you look, and you ask yourself, what's working in some of those other schools? They're spending a lot of time, particularly in elementary schools, huge amounts of time in language development--oral language development done in a variety of ways, done by every teacher, done for long periods of time, done in an integrated, multi-disciplinary way. They're doing it in math, they're doing it in science, they're still using language in language arts, and they're using language in music. They've integrated the notion that your language is king of your ability to actually be a literate human being in this country.

And that represents one of the good things that are happening in these schools that are working. Other schools have spotty language programs. There's a program in, a program out, we like this program today, we don't like this one, and we'll choose another one tomorrow. Teachers in and out. Principals and leadership teams in and out.

What you need is some constancy, both in terms of instruction, and in terms of the human resources that are there. You need proficiency, and you need constancy in those schools, just like you have it in other schools that are doing extremely well. And simply, when you find principals and teachers who are committed and love that school, they don't leave. There are no vacancies there.

So the real issue for me is that you can fix these schools if you really want to hang in and do it.

In the debates over education, a lot of conservatives refer to "government schools." They won't say "public schools," they'll say "government schools." Rather than have the one-size-fits-all government school, which is failing in many places, they say that you need to privatize education. What do you think about that argument?

. . . You can brand this sort of conservative notion about privatization. You can brand this, or you can dislike it, or you can create energy around it. To the contrary, what I do is try to listen to it, to understand what's really being said by more thinking people.

And the thinking people about this are really saying, "Make this competitive, make all schools good schools. Make all schools places where you give parents and their children a place that they want to go, even if you have to start from a different position in some schools. If you have to start lower, and move higher, move faster, move more aggressively, then do that, and do it quickly."

People have said to us that the best defense against voucher schools is a good public education system.

That's right.

A lot of entrepreneurs who say, basically, "Look, education is one of the last opportunities, the last sectors of the economy where you can step in and make some money. We're going to go in, and we're going to run schools, and we're going to run them for profit." What do you think of that?

I don't think you're going to stop the American entrepreneurial spirit. I don't think it's going to stop at public schools' doors. I think it's going to go right over us if we don't understand how to actually aggregate our own asset base, and use it both technologically, and in real space, real terms, to satisfy our own parents and our own teachers and kids.

There is a huge amount that can be done now to customize schools, and make them more competitive. . . . I don't think you're ever going to stop those people, and I don't think you have any reason to try to stop them. But I think that the name of the game for me is how to actually compete with them. I don't think attacking the notion of privatization is a way of being able to defeat this issue. I think building stronger, more viable, more sensitive, more thoughtful, more exciting public schools is the way of being able to do this.

So, to that end, every nickel has to be harnessed. Every new idea has to be harnessed. Every teacher has to be harnessed. Every leader has to be harnessed. And you actually have to build a community. . . You have to start looking at walls that are far, far, far, out beyond where our current school door walls are.

Technology is the best metaphor for being able to see that there's a dot-com world out there that awaits us, if we're willing and courageous enough to go in it, go toward it. But if we're not, we'll sit here and think that this quasi-monopoly is going to work, that what's within our four walls will work, if we can just simply make them come.

And I don't think that that's the case at all. I don't think urban parents believe that. I don't think more affluent parents in suburban communities believe that. They have a huge interdisciplinary context. Their kids are learning in five and six spaces all at once. They're using home as school, they're using school as school, they're using church and after school as school, they're using the Boys and Girls Clubs as school. I mean all of that. . . .

What do you think about charter schools?

I agree with charter schools. I agree with them to the extent that schools are given the opportunity to be and remain public schools. In New York City, I tried to get this point across when the governor was talking about having them work under some other aegis. I don't happen to agree with that aspect of it, but I do believe that charter schools offer an opportunity to build competitive new models. It gives us an opportunity to figure out new and different ways to allocate resources, and ways by which to strengthen and support the creation of new schools within the public school sector.

I don't believe in vouchers, because that takes money completely out of the public school sector and moves it into the private sector. As a result, I think there can be nothing but a diminution of the quality of inputs that then get put on the table for public school kids, whether that be in the form of teachers and their certification, and their numbers of years of service, and the dollars that they're paid. Or it can be in the form of actual materials and supplies and hardware and software that's available for kids. . . .

So if charter schools keep the money in the system, if they're still within the public school system, it's almost like they're an R-and-D side of public schools.

You can have total autonomy, but you still have to have some level of accountability for standards. For example, not every single plant of IBM, for example, operates the exact same way. But they do have one standard.

The units that we call schools have to have a clarity about what the standard is, but they may look very different in getting from here to there. And I think you can do the same thing with charter schools. . . .

Why are vouchers such a hot-button issue?

It symbolizes an era of thinking about public education in its most fragmented terms. It's overly simplistic. "Let's just take their money, we'll teach them a lesson. Let's just take their money and give it to schools that are good schools. That will fix this problem." Obviously, I don't agree with it. But I just don't think it's a coherent message. It strikes a chord in a country that, while deeply divided on the issue, actually wants to see this investment in public education pay off. Many people went to the public school system. They remember wonderful and fond memories of having been educated in a public school system. . . .

And the people that I talk to, in public schools in New York and in other places, will very quickly tell you, "Here's why I put my child here. I want them to have that relationship. I want them to learn, and I want the teachers to be good teachers, and I want the principal to be a good principal, and I want my kid to have fun. But I want them to have a big slice out of America's pie that's available by my neighborhood and by my school. And that's why my kid is in here. Now get it right." And I think that they're absolutely on target. Especially that last piece--"get it right."

You keep talking about having this conversation about education, and it is happening across the country. Below this conversation about education, we're having a conversation about race and class in America.

That's right. Yes, we are. This is as close as America knows how to have a conversation about race and class. The president tried to have this conversation more overtly at one point in his tenure. It was really sort of misguided, in the sense that America's not ready to have that conversation. It's still too raw, or still too fretful, or we're just afraid to do it. It doesn't make us bad. It just means that we've got to find a proxy.

The conversation about education just below the surface is about standards, and assessment, and curriculum, and so on. Just below that conversation is the real conversation: who will be part of the intellectual capital of this nation? Who will have access to the resources that that intellectual capital commands? Who will have access to the marketplace? And how will they access that marketplace? All of that is going to be predicated by who has computers, and who is using technology now, who's actually being taught at a level of literacy that would allow them to compete, technologically and academically, in a literate workplace. That is happening in America's public schools.

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