Rudy to the Rescue

Governor Kitzhaber recruited a K-12 school superstar to be Oregon's new education czar, now all Rudy Crew has to do is figure out what to do.Sounds like a children's book, but that is was Governor Kitzhaber is asking Dr. Rudy Crew to do as Oregon's new Chief Education Officer. The position was created in 2011 when the Governor asked lawmakers to form a new Oregon Education Investment Board, a far-reaching oversight board that will coordinate education from early childhood through college.

The Education Investment Board boasts an impressive list of Oregonians, but it is Crew — who previously ran New York, Sacramento, Tacoma and Miami school systems — who has the job of making it work.

The stakes are high. Only two out of three Oregon high schoolers graduate in four years. Business leaders believe our struggling school system is a competitive disadvantage when recruiting big employers to Oregon. The economic downturn has meant cuts to all levels of education. Tuition at public universities has increased to the level where student debt has become a real problem, especially when graduates can't find jobs. Our early learning programs have been fragmented and uncoordinated, with little success.

Kitzhaber ran in 2010 on the notion that all levels of education need to be coordinated. He made a good argument. Education sectors compete against each other for state dollars, without working together to achieve common goals or address serious gaps or weaknesses in the educational system. The legislature in 2011 and 2012 followed Kitzhaber's lead and passed major bills that reorganize education management in Oregon. Now it is up to Crew to produce results.

Here is an example of the tasks ahead of him. Oregon has multiple boards and agencies that oversee postsecondary education, including the State Board of the Higher Education, the new Higher Education Coordinating Commission, the Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development and the Education Investment Board. Plus the University of Oregon and Portland State University want their own independent governing boards.

It is unclear how all these boards will work together, not to mention whether they will be needed. Changing their roles or eliminating them will require a herculean effort by Crew, based on experience. More important will be whether he can effect changes that address growing concerns about the cost of college education and its value, especially as many recent graduates struggle to find jobs related to their degrees.

The challenges in K-12 schools are just as staggering. The principals of the Chalkboard Project and Oregon Stand for Children sent an open letter to the new chief education officer earlier this year identifying the need to balance local control of schools with intervention to improve low-performing schools.

Then there is huge challenge of meeting the state's 40-40-20 goal by 2025, in which 40 percent of Oregonians hold a 4-year degree or more, 40 percent hold an associate degree or postsecondary certificate and 20 percent have a high school diploma or equivalent. This is no small undertaking. Recent data published by the Brookings Institution notes Portland and its suburbs rank 22nd among major metropolitan areas in education attainment with 33 percent of adults holding a 4-year college degree or more. 

Crew, who officially starts July 1, has only six months to make a recommendation to the Governor in preparation for the 2013 legislation. Not a lot of time, especially when his portfolio involves all levels of education.

Newly established Early Learning Councils are being formed, which will take the place of the county children and families commissions. The job of an elected Superintendent of Public Instruction goes away in two years, while K-12 is working on new education compacts that are supposed to show pathways to achievable outcomes and success. Higher ed also has compacts, while these governance issues are yet to be worked out.

Crew has a lot of important work to do over the next six months, including marking some specific, tangible objectives. Kitzhaber has been lauded for landing a high-profile, experienced and thoughtful education leader for the job. However, expectations can quickly turn to disenchantment if Crew is unable to win the turf wars, knit together a coordinated, functional educational system and produce some demonstrable results that even education critics must acknowledge.

UPDATED 6.5.2012
Susan Castillo announced she will leave her post as elected superintendent of public instruction early to take a job with Project Lead the Way, which develops science and technical curricula for K-12 schools. She will depart July 1 and Governor Kitzhaber said he will consult with Crew on naming a replacement to fill out the remainder of Castillo's term. A major part of her job is to run the Oregon Department of Education. Castillo, a former TV journalist and state legislator from Eugene, served in her post for a decade.