Voucher Politics


When Ray Harding first endorsed Rudy Giuliani at a Sheraton Hotel press conference in April 1989, the Liberal Party issued a statement self-consciously exploring how compatible it and the Republican mayoral candidate were on “gut issues.” Besides abortion, gay rights, and gun control, the statement emphasized Giuliani’s opposition to tuition tax credits, the then popular version of publicly subsidized school choice.

One of the half-dozen pillars of the 55-year-old Liberal Party is an avowed dedication to public education and hostility to any undermining of the separation of church and state. Yet ironically, it was Harding’s son Robert, a registered Liberal and the Giuliani budget director, who put together the February financial plan calling for a $12 million expenditure for vouchers, as well as a $4.5 million emergency modification for the current budget.

Since his surprise voucher announcement in January, the mayor has been traveling the country boosting his plan to use city funds to pay the tuition for thousands of low-income kids to go to private and parochial schools. The Libs, who put out two press releases earlier in the ’90s denouncing other voucher proposals, have been silent about the mayor’s plan, even as they prepare to support him for U.S. Senate in 2000.

Indeed, when vouchers threatened recently to force the resignation of Chancellor Rudy Crew, Ray Harding and Crew talked privately and Harding did not mention his party’s traditional stand against them. Reached by the Voice and asked how he was going to handle Giuliani’s voucher plan in view of his party’s “bedrock principles,” the Lib boss, whose law firm has made millions lobbying the Giuliani administration, said “thanks for your call” and hung up.

On July 24, 1991, Fran Reiter, the Liberal Party state chair, put out a rare party press release announcing its “strong” opposition to “a voucher scheme” under consideration by the State Board of Regents. The proposal, said the future Giuliani deputy mayor and current head of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, “amounts to a skimming off of the cream” of public school students, and would “demoralize and financially eviscerate schools most in need of support.” Diverting public funds to private schools is “tantamount to giving up on the ideal of a classless society,” the statement said.

The party put out a starkly similar release after George Bush announced a 1991 tax-credit plan to aid parents who moved their kids to private and parochial schools.

Harding told the Times in June 1992 that “abortion and the separation of church and state” were the party’s “core principles.” Yet Harding’s state committee collected a $2500 contribution in November from School Choice Now, a Brooklyn-based PAC supporting vouchers that simultaneously gave $1500 to a Giuliani campaign committee.

Of course, the mayor did appear until recently to agree with the party’s position, telling a United Federation of Teachers annual conference in May 1995 that vouchers “would bleed the public schools of needed funds” and be “a terrible mistake.” Sandra Feldman, then the UFT president, told the Voice that she “personally had a conversation” with candidate Giuliani and “asked him about tuition tax credits and vouchers.” Giuliani, she recalled, “said he was opposed. As a lawyer, he believed they were unconstitutional in New York State.”

In 1996 the mayor indicated he might back the use of public funds to help send badly performing kids to Catholic schools, but quickly reversed himself. Instead, he supported a privately financed project that sent 1100 kids a year to nonpublic schools in 1997 and 1998.

The mayor’s retreat took vouchers off the table during his reelection campaign, where they remained until he made what sources say was a last-minute decision to add it to his State of the City speech. Apparently, Governor Pataki’s charter-schools success in December and Peter Vallone’s January recommendation to abolish the Board of Ed forced Giuliani to come up with an education blockbuster of his own.

Vouchers dovetailed with his simultaneous need for what the Times called “another badge to wear on the national stage,” a hard-edged school reform that would appeal to Republican donors across the country.

In addition, vouchers, like other parochial school subsidies, have historically been as strongly championed by the state Conservative Party as they’ve been opposed by the Libs. The party’s platform supports “educational-choice programs,” including “tax credits and/or vouchers,” and its biggest financial backers, like investment adviser Richard Gilder, are also major donors to the School Choice Now PAC.

Giuliani’s probably noticed that no Republican has won statewide office since 1974 without the Conservative line or with the Liberal line. His voucher switch may thus be a harbinger of flip-flops to come.

The main reason Giuliani cited for his conversion was the supposed success of the private scholarship program he jump-started, even though the data generated by consultants retained by the program is mixed. The evaluation, conducted by Washington-based Mathematica Policy Research, revealed one-year upticks regarded as “substantial” among fourth and fifth graders’ reading and math scores, but a drop at the third grade level. By comparing kids who sought the scholarships and didn’t get them with those who did, the evaluation also found that “the higher level of religious activity among scholarship users was, in all likelihood, a genuine program impact.”

The study does not say how many of the 225 schools attended by scholarship winners are religious, but 97 percent required uniforms. One of the largest gains measured in the questionnaire was that scholarship winners had a 30 percentage point increase over nonwinners in their attendance at religious services. There was a larger differential of parental and student satisfaction with the chosen private school because it “observed religious traditions” than for any academic impact it had.

Fifty-two percent of the mothers who applied for aid were Catholic, 35 percent Protestant, and only 6 percent reported having no religious affiliation. Asked if it was “probable” that the primary reason parents were so satisfied with their new schools was because they could now afford to buy the religious education they previously couldn’t, MPR’s senior fellow, David Myers told the Voice: “It’s certainly possible.” It’s hard to imagine that even Giuliani believes that city subsidies to boost Mass attendance are a constitutional public good.

The mayor tainted the voucher question— a legitimate issue that ought to be debated on its merits— by pushing it suddenly and surreptitiously. Faced with what he knew was “a matter of principle” to Crew, Giuliani put $12 million for vouchers into the financial plan without informing the chancellor’s office until it was in print. The mayor also tried to sneak the $4.5 million allocation for 1999 into a budget mod without telling Crew, but Council finance director Tom McMahon says his staff “flagged it” and convinced City Hall to take it out. The secrecy with which the budget office dealt with Crew is unprecedented.

While Giuliani has likened the voucher dispute with Crew to others, like school security, that were amicably settled, there were no previous attempts to do end runs around the chancellor and negotiate an issue directly with Board of Ed members. Yet in this instance, Giuliani not only lobbied, he apparently dangled millions in extra capital budget funding to win the decisive vote of Queens representative Terri Thomson.

Rudy may be listening to the same sort of advisers who persuaded Al D’Amato to launch his 1998 senate bid with an attack on the teachers union. So far, Giuliani’s handling of the voucher issue has hardly been smart government; but it might not turn out to be smart politics either.

Research: Camila Gamboa, Coco McPherson, Kandea Mosley, Soo-Min Oh, Ron Zapata

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