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Published in Print: April 28, 1999, as Giuliani Floats N.Y. Voucher Plan Run by City Hall

Giuliani Floats N.Y. Voucher Plan Run by City Hall

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There's more than one way to win a spat--or at least try to.

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York proved that last week when he proposed a private-school-voucher program sponsored by City Hall, instead of the city school board.

The mayor had provoked a mini-crisis last month after his maneuvers to win school board support for vouchers prompted a resignation threat by Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew.

The standoff eased when the two men agreed to discuss the issue in private. Neither backed off his positions, but Mr. Crew suggested that he might be willing to live with a plan not run directly through the school board. ("In N.Y.C., Crew and Giuliani Agree To Disagree Over Voucher Proposal," March 17, 1999.)

As part of his proposed city budget for fiscal 2000, the Republican mayor called for setting aside $12 million as an incentive for one of the school system's 32 subdistricts to host an experimental voucher plan "administered by the city." The subdistrict would be free to use the money as it saw fit.

City officials declined to predict the cost of the program itself, but estimated the value of the tuition vouchers to be between $6,000 and $7,000 per student per year. Only the poorest 20 percent of families in the selected subdistrict would be eligible, and the vouchers could be used "at any participating private or parochial school in the city."

Mr. Giuliani called the public schools "enormously valuable" but said they needed "tremendous improvement."

"This is an idea whose time has come," Mr. Giuliani said."To make the public school system compete will save it. To defend the status quo is a tragedy."

Critics Vow To Fight

But Mr. Crew predicted that the plan would go "nowhere fast." He said it was unlikely to pass muster either with the Democratic-controlled City Council or the courts.

"Ultimately, it will not have a base of support politically," said the chancellor, who enjoys a generally friendly relationship with the mayor. "There's nobody in my system who wants to do this."

Meanwhile, Peter F. Vallone, the City Council's speaker, said he opposed the idea as a drain on public school funding. The city's affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers reiterated vows to fight the proposal politically and in court, if necessary. And Steven Sanders, the chairman of the state Assembly's education committee, also threatened to sue if the council didn't block the plan first.

Mr. Sanders, a Democrat, restated his view that any voucher plan including religious schools would violate the state constitution's ban on public aid to such schools.

Nationally, Milwaukee and Cleveland are the only two cities where such programs are operating. Both are state-run and include religious schools. Milwaukee's plan has survived a court challenge; the fate of Cleveland's program has not been resolved.

Mr. Giuliani said the city would suffer without the kind of "worthy debate" on private school vouchers taking place elsewhere. But he predicted the debate might well prove a prolonged one.

The mayor said he began warning three years ago that he would back vouchers unless the 1.1 million-student district undertook "revolutionary change." Such change, he said, has clearly not occurred.

Many critics have attributed the mayor's proposal to his interest in running for the U.S. Senate next year. But at a news conference late last week, Mr. Giuliani disavowed such a motive.

"I know everything is seen in a political context," he said. "But the best politics is figuring out the art of change."

Vol. 18, Issue 33, Page 3

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