Giuliani flunks school-voucher test

Instead of helping the poor, he aims to dynamite public education.

Published May 12, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

In January, when Mayor Rudy Giuliani delivered his State of the City address, he opened what should have been a necessary and vibrant battle over educational principles. Giuliani proposed putting several million dollars into vouchers that would allow poor children stranded in the worst public schools to attend private ones.

"If we give poor parents the same opportunity to make choices about their children's education that the richest and most affluent parents in New York have," the mayor said, "let's see if that doesn't work to really energize that school district and help to create another alternative and more competition."

Dressing the conservative faith in free markets in the liberal cloth of fighting inequality, the mayor's words typified the argument increasingly and effectively made for vouchers by an unlikely coalition of libertarians, the religious right and traditionally Democratic minorities. That the mayor would advocate the cause in a city once so renowned for its public schools only added to the impact and symbolism.

Then, in the weeks after Giuliani's speech, he and Hillary Rodham Clinton emerged as the presumptive candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Circling each other in appearances across the state, Giuliani and Clinton held the prospect of making vouchers the central issue of the most closely watched Senate race in the 2000 election. No supporter of vouchers -- no one, for that matter, who relishes a public debate on how to better educate poor children -- could have asked for a more prominent forum.

Giuliani, however, did not know when to clam up. Presenting his budget on April 22, the mayor could not resist deriding New York's public schools as "dysfunctional" and "just plain terrible." He concluded, "The whole system should be blown up."

And so, in a single outburst, the man who could have been vouchers' most important advocate on the national stage transformed himself into their worst enemy. The fear of vouchers, even among those sympathetic to the plight of minority students, is that in the course of rescuing a few thousand children they will undermine the public schools that educate millions and, in a broader sense, erode the entire concept of public education. The mayor's choice of imagery manifested the suspicion that vouchers, however camouflaged in the language of fairness, fundamentally amount to a wrecking ball.

There may well be an argument to be made in favor of wrecking balls in places like Florida, which approved a voucher plan last month. Decades of segregation and under-funding have done little there to create a tradition of quality public education. In New York, in contrast, the public schools are inextricably part of the civic mythology of immigrant uplift and social mobility: nothing less than the American Dream. Even in its depleted present state, the city system continues to send a remarkable share of foreign-born pupils on to college.

However, that same school system and scores of other urban school districts have performed poorly for African-American and Puerto Rican students. In doing so, they have left themselves vulnerable to the contention that vouchers represent equal educational opportunity, the logical extension of Brown vs. Board of Education. By 1997, some 57.3 percent of blacks approved of vouchers, according to a poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank focused on black issues. For blacks between 26 and 35, the rate soared to 86.5 percent.

The most persuasive spokespeople for vouchers have emerged from the usually liberal confines of the black community -- Washington Post columnist William Raspberry; political advisor William Galston; Howard Fuller, the former superintendent of public schools in Milwaukee; and the Rev. Floyd Flake of Queens, a former congressman and college dean. Even one of the most die-hard foes of vouchers, Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has called Flake "someone whose motives are not questionable."

Now, however, Flake finds himself eclipsed by a mayor whose motives are dubious on several counts. To begin with, there is Giuliani's inconsistency. In a 1995 speech, as the New York Times recently reported, the mayor declared that vouchers would "weaken if not create the collapse of the New York City public school system." Giuliani now says his thinking on the issue has "evolved." That evolution has neatly coincided with the growth of his political ambitions. Though he is a liberal Republican on such issues as immigration, gay rights and legal abortion, Giuliani has, in the vouchers issue, an opportunity to reconcile himself with the GOP's right wing.

Then there are the mayor's tattered relations with the minority community, particularly over the conduct of the police. Flake, one of Giuliani's most significant black supporters, broke ranks with him to be arrested for protesting the police shooting of an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo. Last week, the trial began for four officers charged with having tortured a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, to the point of raping him with a broken length of broomstick. It is improbable, to put it mildly, that blacks would forgive Giuliani the Diallo and Louima atrocities in exchange for his support of vouchers.

And, finally, there is that image of dynamiting the school system. A day after Giuliani uttered the phrase, the New York press offered him an opportunity to disavow it. Instead, the mayor claimed he had first heard the expression years ago from Robert Wagner, then president of the Board of Education. Now dead, Wagner is in no position to dispute what struck former Mayor Edward Koch, among others, as Giuliani's flawed memory.

In any event, the mayor stood by his words. And now he must stand by what they conjure -- the belief that public education is literally hopeless. In that climate, vouchers won't stimulate reform; they'll stimulate increased flight from the public schools and increased calls by affluent, sectarian constituencies for vouchers of their own. The cycle will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Senate race ahead may ultimately feature a debate on vouchers, but the balance of power has already shifted. Hillary Clinton could easily be assailed as a symbol of the class inequality that vouchers seek to correct: She sent her daughter Chelsea to posh Sidwell Friends at the same time her husband was rejecting legislation to give vouchers to Washington's most destitute and maleducated children. Instead, with his reckless rhetoric, Rudy Giuliani has hung the bull's-eye on his own back.

By Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

MORE FROM Samuel G. Freedman

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Education Hillary Rodham Clinton Rudy Giuliani