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The Nation

Giuliani's poor school marks

His record in New York City includes four chancellors, angry teachers and an inferior educational system.

September 13, 2007|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

Rudolph W. Giuliani made New Yorkers three promises when he campaigned for mayor in the early 1990s: He would fix troubled schools, cut crime and boost the economy.

Today, the city is safer and has more jobs. But as Giuliani campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, he says little about his problematic record on education.

New York City schools went through eight years of political chaos during Giuliani's terms, which ended in 2002. His bare-knuckle tactics contributed to the departure of three chancellors, according to interviews with former school administrators, Board of Education members, teachers, parents, union officials and outside experts.

He left behind an expired union contract, an army of angry teachers and a school system that by his own admission was still delivering inferior educations to hundreds of thousands of students.

How Giuliani handled education provides a window into his potential political skills as a U.S. president, especially in terms of the way he managed people and his refusal to compromise on issues big and small.

"I don't think he achieved anywhere near what he wanted to achieve," said Joseph P. Viteritti, an early Giuliani administration advisor and now a professor of public policy at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. "There were no significant changes in the system while he was there. He tended to make enemies. He was very tough and abrupt. I think his instincts were right, but sometimes he overplayed it and caused a reaction against himself."

Giuliani fought with administrators, board members and state legislators over budgets, union contracts, vouchers, gay tolerance education, lunchroom supervision, curriculum, testing, social promotion and summer school, among much else.

Giuliani declined to be interviewed for this article. But his supporters say he took on an embedded bureaucracy that had badly mismanaged education, allowing schools to muddle along without meeting standards. They said he battled a bloated administration that was sucking dollars out of classrooms. And they applauded his attack on a curriculum that informed young children about homosexuality and distributed condoms to teens.

"He could not have accomplished more with a different approach," said Anthony P. Coles, Giuliani's deputy mayor, who handled education. "The school system was far superior when he left than it was when he was elected mayor."

But his critics -- and there are many -- say that instead of demonstrating leadership, he inflamed passions, generated distrust in the state capital and ultimately failed to gain the political reforms needed to carry out his agenda.

"While Giuliani was the mayor, things did not improve," said Carol Gresser, a former city education board president who was the swing vote between liberals and conservatives. "The system was denied the money it needed. I was on the board for eight years and it was constantly, 'Let's cut back on the school system.' "

She added: "He demonized the school system."

Giuliani's biggest goal, winning direct and absolute control of the school system, was rejected by the New York Legislature, which accepted the concept of mayoral control but was against handing it to Giuliani. That political failure was one important part of Giuliani's antagonistic relationship with school leaders.

Just six months after Giuliani's exit, state legislators voted to eliminate the New York City Board of Education. They gave Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg the direct control of the school system that Giuliani tried to get for eight years.

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Huge system

To be sure, New York City schools have been the bane of mayors since the 1960s. Other than some entire states, it is the largest nonfederal government entity in the nation, serving more than 1 million students and employing more than 100,000 educators and staff.

Because of its size, New York's system has some of the worst and some of the very best schools anywhere. But its low-end schools -- the ones with rats, high dropout rates and leaky roofs -- made New York a symbol of national education failure in the early 1990s, just as Giuliani was campaigning for mayor.

Giuliani, himself a product of Brooklyn Catholic schools, is blamed by some for helping fuel controversy over a diversity program known as the Children of the Rainbow curriculum.

The program preached racial and religious tolerance, but a piece of it also taught children younger than 10 about the existence of homosexuality, using the book "Heather Has Two Mommies." That was the part of the program that enraged parents -- many of them Giuliani supporters -- in heavily Catholic sections of Queens.

School Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez, now retired in Florida, supported the curriculum, arguing that it taught teens abstinence while also showing "how to protect yourself if you were going to have sex." Parents also could choose to not have their children participate, he said.

"It was not a big deal, but it became a big deal," he said.

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