It’s The Schools

It’s The Schools

What next? As Mayor Rudolph Giuliani basked in his smashing election victory, New Yorkers, a famously demanding bunch, already were considering what they expected of his second term.

For Jews, at least, it appears that more of the same will not be enough.

For all their enthusiasm for the huge drop in crime during Giuliani’s first four years, Jews appear to be more adamant than most among the growing constituency calling on Giuliani to make education his priority this time around.

“According to the data I’ve seen from surveys,” said Ester Fuchs, director of the Columbia University-Barnard College Center for Urban Policy, “it’s clear that education is now the most important issue in the city for Jews.”

Fuchs’ center has been among those conducting polls on issues New Yorkers care about. Despite their overwhelming vote for the mayor, she said, Jews judge Giuliani’s handling of the education quite harshly.

“Most give him a grade of ‘poor’ or ‘fair,’ at best,” Fuchs said.

In fact, less than half of school-age Jewish children attend public schools — a much lower rate than many other ethnic groups. Yet Jews appear to put education above all other issues — including crime — as the city’s most urgent concern, Fuchs said. And by a wide margin, at that. Other groups, including blacks and Hispanics, continue to cite crime as their top concern.

“It’s counterintuitive,” she said. “But most Jews don’t live in high crime areas. And many blacks do.”

This Jewish priority seemed buttressed Tuesday when Jewish voters approved by a margin of 70-30 percent the schools capital improvement referendum on the ballot. The $2.4 billion bond issue for construction and infrastructure improvements in public schools statewide was defeated, 52-48 percent.

Fuchs’ survey on the issues of concern to New Yorkers is expected to be issued later this month. She declined to give specific statistics until then. But based on that research and her reviews of related surveys, Fuchs said, “The good news is that Jews are still very public spirited. They care about education, for everybody, even though many of their own children are in private schools.

“They still believe education is part of your right as an American citizen, and that the failure of public schools is particularly egregious.”

Fuchs’ attributed this to “the Jewish belief in the importance of education for progress,” which she said was ultimately a prerequisite for their own well-being in the city. She added, “Jews may also believe it’s the only way to combat anti-Semitism.”

Whatever its roots, Fuchs’ findings found ample support in pronouncements by everyone from Orthodox community leaders in Brooklyn to liberal Jewish activists in Manhattan who were asked what Jews should expect from a second Giuliani term.

“The priority should be to improve the infrastructure of the schools,” said Jacob Goldstein, chairman of Community Board 9 in Crown Heights.

“My kids don’t go to public school,” he said, “but I know it’s an important issue. The truth is, the schools are in trouble. Many are turn of the century in terms of their infrastructure.”

Asked why he saw that as the top priority given the overwhelming devotion of his community to the Lubavitch system of parochial schools, Goldstein replied, “I think that’s simply where Jews come from. I think education has always been a Jewish-driven issue. The way to get ahead is to go to school. Get educated. Become a professional. And you’ll make it.”

Marilyn Braveman, former education director of the American Jewish Committee, agreed wholeheartedly. “I think it’s especially important in his second term for the mayor to be very serious about schools, particularly restoring the cuts they have suffered,” she said.

Braveman, now chairwoman of the Education Priorities Panel, a coalition of civic groups and education advocacy organizations, urged the mayor to lead a drive to reform Albany’s allocation formula for city schools, which she said “does not treat the city equitably.” She urged him also to restore the cuts he himself has imposed on school allocations from the city budget.
Braveman welcomed the $125 million Giuliani recently committed to “Project Read,” an early-reading program for city primary-school students. But she noted that this was only a one-year infusion.

“Over the last four years, the city has cut the schools by $1.6 billion,” she said. “And each year, the school population has gone up. … I don’t think we should ever again get into a situation where parents are paying for teachers in their own schools,” she said, referring to a situation in Greenwich Village.

“I don’t think there is a special Jewish agenda for the next administration,” said Martin Begun, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York. “We want what everyone else wants in New York: Some substantial effort made on the education front. And certainly sustaining and maintaining the ‘quality-of-life’ issues.

“Jews and public education have always been synonymous,” he observed. And while Jews have been “delighted” by the mayor’s performance when it comes to crime and quality of life, and voted overwhelmingly for him in large part on that basis. “As life in the city improves, the parts that haven’t improved only stand out more starkly,” Begun said.

Given all this, it might seem strange that Ruth Messinger, who virtually made education her mantra during the campaign and criticized Giuliani repeatedly for his failings on the issue, did so poorly among New York Jews.

“The truth is, there were all kinds of dissatisfactions that someone could have capitalized on,” said Fuchs, the Barnard pollster. “But Ruth Messinger didn’t.”

One Jewish communal official, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, attributed much of this failure to Messinger’s failure to overcome persistent doubts about her own ability to effectively reform the problems she was targeting while preserving the gains Giuliani delivered on crime.

“The fact that education becomes a larger issue for the community now that crime is ‘solved’ does not negate that Giuliani solved the crime problem,” he said. “And Jews have a tendency to show appreciation to someone for effective performance.”

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