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Giuliani’s poor school marks

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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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

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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.

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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.

Giuliani’s political managers stoked the issue, “though you could never pin it on him [Giuliani] directly,” Fernandez said. Some of Giuliani’s supporters also objected to the way the program addressed racial and religious tolerance. “Multiculturalism is a good idea, but multicultural education has deteriorated into an anti-white curriculum,” said Herman Badillo, former Bronx president and now an education advisor to Giuliani’s presidential campaign.

As polls showed Giuliani’s campaign growing stronger, the school board began to embrace his supporters’ concerns, and Fernandez was fired.

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The controversy died down when the board hired Ramon C. Cortines as chancellor in September 1993 and Giuliani took office several months later.

Cortines, a courtly, soft-spoken man, had a strong track record. He had run school systems in Pasadena, San Francisco and San Jose, and was a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education.

But Cortines and Giuliani quickly crossed swords over school finances.

Although Giuliani did not directly control the school system, he did control about half of its funding, which came from city coffers, and he quickly began cuts aimed at what he regarded as a wasteful system.

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Although the system’s budget rose by about 3% in real terms between 1992 and 2002, school officials thought they needed more to bring teacher salaries in line with other school districts and to make repairs to decrepit infrastructure.

Cortines, now a deputy mayor in Los Angeles, acknowledges that he inherited a bloated bureaucracy, but he maintains that the mayor’s cuts shortchanged students and parents. “I took him on on that,” Cortines said.

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Revolving leaders

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The arbiter in these disputes was usually the Board of Education, which was made up of seven members -- five appointed by the presidents of each of the five boroughs and two by the mayor. The Manhattan, Brooklyn and Bronx positions on the board were held by liberals. Giuliani’s two appointees sided with a Staten Island conservative. Queens often broke the tie. The eccentric group provided what many scornful parents thought of as comic opera for the city.

Giuliani’s fights with Cortines also became personal.

In an apparent reference to Cortines’ slight stature, Giuliani publicly called the chancellor the “little victim” and said he should not act so “precious.”

Cortines recalled that Giuliani called him one evening and said he needed an urgent meeting. When Cortines arrived at Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence, Giuliani kept him waiting all night.

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“I should have just left,” Cortines said. By October 1995 he quit.

“It was becoming the Ray and Rudy show,” Cortines recalled. “I didn’t come there to fight with the mayor. But I wasn’t going to be a milquetoast and let him steamroll me.”

The next school chancellor, Rudy Crew, was backed by Giuliani. When he arrived, Crew told Cortines his problem was he didn’t know how to handle Giuliani. “I told him, ‘you’ll see,’ ” Cortines recalled.

At first, the relationship blossomed. Crew and Giuliani took in games at Yankee Stadium. Another time, a news photo captured them smoking cigars.

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Crew soon was being praised for demanding accountability, and test scores began to rise.

“The schools were really thriving under Rudy Crew,” said Robert Tobias, former chief of student testing in the school system. “He was a visionary.”

But, after a few years, Crew ran into trouble with Giuliani. Some analysts attribute those problems to a conservative shift in Giuliani that accompanied his aborted 1999 campaign for the U.S. Senate.

By then, Giuliani had embraced school vouchers, and he supported shifting millions of tax dollars to a pilot program for parents choosing private schools.

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Crew strongly opposed vouchers, which he calls “an idea that at its heart is about breaking the back of public education,” and he recalled that Giuliani never discussed his voucher plan with him. In fact, he learned about it from reporters, which he says gave him a new understanding of “what he [Giuliani] was capable of doing unilaterally.”

In April 1999, Giuliani said the school system was “dysfunctional and “should be blown up.” He described the system and the officials in it “as no good and beyond redemption.”

Crew responded the next day with in an open letter to the media, calling Giuliani’s comments “destructive” and “reckless.”

“When the mayor declares that the whole school system should be blown up, he tells 1.1 million children and thousands of parents, teachers and administrators that they are wasting their time.”

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The Board of Education, led by Giuliani’s appointees, threw out Crew in late 1999. One issue that worked against him was an internal investigation that found some teachers and principals had altered test scores.

“The mayor will always win,” said Crew, now superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. “There was no other possible outcome, except for this Rudy to leave. We were both very intense, bullheaded. But I don’t hold a grudge.”

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Third departure

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Around New York, the loss of a third chancellor in less than a decade stirred resentment in some quarters.

“I thought Rudy Crew was a terrific chancellor, a very elegant man,” recalled Jacqueline Kamin, then co-chair of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council. “He was mistreated horribly. Giuliani had to be the boss of the room, even if he didn’t know anything about education.”

By contrast, Badillo, the Giuliani campaign’s education advisor, blames Crew for much of the discord, saying he paid lip service to Giuliani but failed to push reforms hard enough.

Giuliani tried to influence the board’s next choice for chancellor in early 2000, but the board ignored him and hired Harold O. Levy, a Wall Street attorney. For the first four months of Levy’s tenure, Giuliani would not meet or talk with him.

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Despite some progress under Crew and Cortines, the system was still in deep trouble. Graduation rates for minorities were below 50%. Test scores had failed to show dramatic improvements. Salaries in the city system were below suburban districts, making recruitment difficult. About 12,000 uncertified teachers were in classrooms to fill critical shortages.

Levy and Giuliani sparred over school funding and over stalled negotiations for a new teachers union contract.

“Giuliani’s view was that the union was the enemy,” Levy said. “My view was that while I had my differences, the union was public education’s most effective advocate in the Legislature.”

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Post-Giuliani

After Giuliani left office, a new contract was negotiated that gave teachers a 43% wage increase through 2008 in exchange for more work. Levy added that he had all but eliminated use of uncertified teachers.

“Rudy Giuliani tried to blame teachers for the problems,” said Richard Farkas, a former Queens teacher and now vice president of the United Federation of Teachers. “He had no vision. With Bloomberg, we added 30 minutes to the school day and two days to the school year. We doubled math and literacy periods.”

Bloomberg has taken large city schools and broken them into smaller units, taking the number of schools from fewer than 1,200 to 1,450 with level enrollment and is giving every principal $150,000 in discretionary spending.

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Among Bloomberg’s more controversial reforms is a plan to pay students to take standardized tests and reward those who perform well with bonuses. “The mayor is a very strong believer in incentives,” said Dennis Walcott, deputy mayor of New York. “If the end result is an increase in student performance, then that will be good.”

Meanwhile, Giuliani has not given up his belief in vouchers. In his presidential campaign, Giuliani said parents should have the right to reject public education and get taxpayer funding for private schools.

Teachers union president Randi Weingarten looks back at Giuliani’s tenure and observes simply, “Labor had a really hard time with Rudy Giuliani. His rhetoric was inflammatory. He wanted to be provocative and was. I don’t think it was helpful.”

Even some former associates reach the same conclusion.

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“It was a difficult political system to make work,” said Viteritti, the former Giuliani advisor. “His style was combative, and in the end it worked against him.”

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ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com


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