A Victory for Parents: New York City’s Neighborhoods Revolt

In the late 1960s, New York City’s cultural elites faced a grave dilemma on the issue of school decentralization. There was, on the one hand, the lingering spirit of the “Great Society” calling for “maximum feasible participation” of minorities and local communities in their schools; on the other hand, there was the liberals’ historic distrust of citizens actually making public policy decisions. If Manhattan’s elites opposed Decentralization and Community Action, they would appear racist and insensitive; yet if they approved, they might lose control to those borough neighborhood “louts.”

For several years legislation that would allow parents a greater say in their children’s education remained in limbo, bouncing between the city council and the state legislature in Albany. When the stalling became too embarrassing, a system was finally agreed upon that made principals, teachers, and administrators allegedly accountable to minorities and neighborhood activists.

The hero of Manhattan’s enlightened salons, Mayor John V. Lindsay (R.) announced the dawn of a new municipal era in 1970: New York City was to have 32 elected school boards. In addition, the Board of Education was to be revamped: two members were to be appointed by the mayor, and the five borough presidents were each to appoint one member, for a total of seven. Although education bureaucrats and union leaders had to put on their happy face at Lindsay’s press conference, it soon became apparent that they had no intention of permitting local political, civic, and religious activists to decide the fate of their own children’s education.

New York University sociologist David Rogers recently observed that the Board of Education headquarters at Brooklyn’s 110 Livingston Street (which houses over 5,000 bureaucrats) “never really dedicated itself to implementing the law and supporting the districts… and continued to overregulate the districts and schools, limiting their flexibility, while at the same time failing to set standards for performance and monitor compliance.” For example, the first chancellor of the new system, Dr. Harvey Scribner, was hounded from the job after only two years, precisely because he was an enthusiastic supporter of decentralization.

For the next 20 years the entrenched bureaucracy bullied the school boards, while the seven appointees of the Board of Education served as a rubber stamp for the liberal chancellors who, as the apex of the central bureaucracy, ran the city’s schools. Increasingly, the educational system became a target of social engineering experiments that were brewing in Manhattan’s intellectual labs.

In the 1970s, New York’s elites began to press a political and educational agenda that would eradicate the influence of Judeo-Christian principles on public policy. By 1986, for example, a so-called Homosexual Rights-Sexual Orientation bill was passed which bestowed minority status privileges based on sexual proclivities. The homosexuals’ historic plea for privacy in the bedroom was discarded in favor of a radical program of public acceptance and celebration of homosexual culture.

The Homosexual Agenda

Recognizing that culture defines the community’s purpose for being, these radical groups wanted to change society at all levels. As early as June 12, 1980, the national homosexual publication The Advocate wrote:

Breaking the sexual taboo agreement has serious consequences. For gay people there is no choice. Either we break it or we are unable to express ourselves…. We seem to have agreed that every form of sexual conduct anywhere and at anytime is good; sex is like a glass of water to drink whenever one is thirsty…. The conflict of these two cultural agreements (i.e., Judeo-Christian versus gay liberation) creates confusion in the minds of many gay people as to what is right. I submit that there is no right and wrong about sex, only problems of self-esteem and community survival.

The January 3, 1983 edition of the New York Native outlined this strategy:

The gay movement does not exist to elect Mario Cuomo nor even to pass the gay rights bill. These are at best steps in a much larger process, namely the creation of genuine acceptance of homosexuality in society at large…. To create such changes in social attitudes requires action at all levels of society. We need to be concerned with the vast collection of institutions and apparatus that determine ideology in a society such as the United States—including media, educational and religious institutions and the like…. We are essentially a radical movement and insofar as we are successful, we do indeed need to break down the dominant authority of certain traditional values about sex and relationships. Often this perception is argued in terms of the need to defend our own minorities, whether they be man/boy lovers, transvestites or sadomasochists.

These statements make clear that the homosexual activists’ goal is the elimination of traditional morality, as Richard Goldstein admitted in his June 23, 1984 Village Voice article, “The Politics of Gay Liberation”:

In the end, the gay alternative means a departure not just from heterosexuality but from social orthodoxy…. In other words, gay liberation is a social event. In its most moderate politics—the enactment of civil rights legislation—it has radical value because civil rights legislation means the way to acceptance and acceptance means the way to dissolution of the norm.

Activist Michael Swift’s “Goals of the Homosexual Movement” in the February 15, 1987 Gay Community News reiterated the antinomian theme:

The family unit—spawning ground of lies, betrayals, mediocrity, hypocrisy and violence—will be abolished. The family unit, which only dampens imagination and curbs free will, must be eliminated…. All churches who condemn us will be closed. Our only gods are handsome young men. We adhere to a cult of beauty, moral and aesthetic. All that is vulgar and banal will be annihilated. Since we are alienated from middle class heterosexual conventions, we are free to live our lives according to the dictates of the pure imagination. For us, too much is not enough.

Throughout the 1980s the political clout of the homosexual movement grew. In 1989 it caused the mayor of New York to declare that marriage is no longer a requirement for a family: he signed the domestic partnership order which for city employees recognized homosexual couples and unmarried couples as the legal equals of married families. And not only were married couples beginning to lose their legal pre-eminence, they were also about to lose their rights as parents. AIDS expert Dr. Mathilde Krim testified at a public meeting of the Board of Education that “parents are not qualified to decide whether their teenagers should have access to condoms and that parents should not really have a say if schools should hand them out.” Mayor Dinkins and Education Chancellor Joseph Fernandez concurred, and so they agreed to a condom distribution program in which students are given condoms over their parent’s objections, without even any counseling required.

The ultimate assault on parents’ rights, however, was the 1992 unveiling of the revised kindergarten to sixth-grade “HIV/AIDS Curriculum” and the “Children of the Rainbow Curriculum.” The K-6 HIV/AIDS curriculum is a New York City supplement to a New York State-mandated program. It informs students in kindergarten through sixth grade how to have safe sex; there are discussions in the fourth and fifth grades on oral, anal, and vaginal sex, and children are also taught how to use condoms, dental dams, contraceptive gels, and lubricants. A glossary is provided that defines such terms as bisexuality, homosexuality, lesbianism, body fluids, and barrier method.

Fourth-grade students are introduced to counseling agencies, including Planned Parenthood, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and ACT-UP—the group that regularly demonstrates at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and has desecrated the Communion Host.

Proponents of the curriculum claim that parents sign consent forms. Yet in reality, parental authority to decide what is morally correct is disregarded. The consent slip does not describe any of the components of the curriculum; it merely states that there is an AIDS program or a “family life” program. Furthermore, if the parent declines to sign the form, the child is still exposed to the program. Teachers mount posters two days before the class commences, and everyone views the pictures of condoms, gels, and various devices. Students can’t avoid being influenced, and it is fair to assume that those left out will consult those who actually attend the classes.

But the social engineering doesn’t end here; the K-6 HIV/AIDS is only the sex education component of the controverted curriculum. There’s also the multicultural program—the Rainbow Curriculum—that describes homosexuals as a normal cultural group but fails to address Judeo-Christian cultural norms. The bibliography of this part of the curriculum includes the now-famous books: Heather Has Two Mommies, Daddy’s Roommate, Gloria Goes to Gay Pride, and Rapunzel’s Revenge: Fairytales for Feminists.

This curriculum insists that teachers discuss homosexual lifestyles as normal, albeit alternative, ways of life in all courses (e.g., math and science) beginning with the first grade. The recommended books serve as tools to indoctrinate pro-homosexual views:

Being gay is just one more kind of love. [Daddy’s Roommate]

Some women love women, some men love men and some women and men love each other. That’s why we march in the parade—so everyone can have choice. [Gloria Goes to Gay Pride]

Heather’s favorite number is two, she has two arms, two legs, two ears, two hands, two mommies, Mommy Jane and Mommy Kate. [Heather Has Two Mommies]

In Rapunzel’s Revenge, traditional fairy tales are rewritten from a feminist perspective. Snow White organizes the seven dwarfs into a trade union in “Hi Ho, it’s off to strike we go.” Prince Charming is rejected in “Cinderella Re-examined.” And Little Miss Muffet says to the spider, “C’mon baby, frighten me to death.”

Supplementing these books is a 433-page guide which gives teachers their marching orders:

•”At least ten percent of each class will grow up to be homosexual.”

•”Because of pervasive homophobia in society lesbian/gay teens are more likely to drop out of school, commit suicide, abuse drugs/alcohol or get pregnant than the rest of their peers.”

•”Children must be taught to acknowledge the positive aspects of each type of household.”

•”There are many kinds of families.”

•”Family is defined as two or more people who share love, care and responsibilities.”

•”Discuss with the children that their class is a school family working together, sharing space and materials and helping each other to learn and grow.”

•”If teachers do not discuss lesbian/gay issues they are not likely to come up. Children need actual experiences via creative play books, visitors, etc. in order for them to view lesbians/gays are real people to be respected and appreciated.”

Yes, in the Big Apple, parents’ beliefs must be ignored and children taught the moral equivalence of all sexual practices in order to comply with the New York City Board of Education’s Resolution Statement of Policy on Multicultural Education and Promotion of Positive Intergroup Relations. Then again, perhaps the city is not doomed to that fate.

Green Patches in the Urban Desert

New York’s social engineers have devoted roughly a half-century to urban renewal, with unhappy results seen in virtually every borough. They bulldozed thousands of lower- and middle-class homes and replaced them with “projects,” and they created a welfare system that, in the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.), resulted in the formation of a “permanent dependent class.” Many erstwhile neighborhoods have collapsed into something called “the community,” which features a permanent underclass, racism, and an insatiable appetite for tax dollars.

But the city is a wondrous place. Even in the midst of the urban desert there are patches of green. After block upon blasted block of slum, one can come across a row of tidy, well-kept rowhouses. These patches are populated by third- and fourth-generation ethnics, as well as new immigrants committed to family, education, discipline, loyalty, and hard work. Two of our story’s heroines come from these neighborhoods: Irene Impellizzeri of Park Slope, Brooklyn, and Mary Cummins of Glendale, Queens.

There was universal praise for Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden’s 1980 appointment of Dr. Irene Impellizzeri to the Board of Education. A respected professional educator, she had earned a Ph.D. in psychology and served as Dean of Brooklyn College. Then the trouble started. Not one to be a rubber stamp, she began to question measures before the Board that challenged traditional morals. She warned a group of teachers,

There is something happening, something sour, something that weighs on us, something that is now making some teachers doubt their vocation. We have to find some way to mediate between the current requirements of a system and the abiding imperatives to our consciences…. None of the founders of the American public schools accepted concupiscence and self-indulgence as givens. None of them thought that morality had no place in education. Because without morality, there is no hope, the future is adrift—for the children and for society.

The proposal to distribute condoms without parental consent to 250,000 students in 120 high schools was too much for Dr. Impellizzeri. Even though her side lost four to three at the February 1991 Board of Education meeting, she was not going to let the issue die. She immediately filed a petition with the state education commission to review the legality of the measure. Dr. Impellizzeri and her dissenting colleagues held that the law states “that parents must give consent in any sex-ed instruction and in matters affecting the health code.” In the judgment of Impellizzeri and her colleagues, condoms come under both.

While the legal maneuvering was taking place, the residents of the city’s green patches began to realize the significance of the condom measure—their parental authority was being usurped by the state.

The Board of Ed began to feel the heat, and in a private June meeting voted five to two to “re-assess” the plan and to consider “opt out” rights for parents. City Hall was furious at this shift toward parents’ rights. Board President H. Call McCall was squeezed to re-introduce the “opt out” measure at the September public meeting, where it could be overturned.

As the session began, it appeared that at least four votes were still solidly behind the June “re-assessment” that could have allowed parents some measure of control over the formation of their children’s character. But then supporter Dr. Westina L. Matthews, a mayoral appointee, was summoned to an outside phone. On her return, she reversed her position and the amendment was defeated four to three. The phone call that changed her mind came from David M. Dinkins, Mayor of New York. Chancellor Fernandez, was delighted with this victory, for now he could introduce his other plans.

Parental Revolt

When Joseph A. Fernandez left Miami’s school district in 1990 to take on the $195,000 a year chancellor’s job in New York, the media described him as an administrative wiz who would bring instant order to the city’s educational maze. Instead, he turned out to be a ferocious ideologue who could not tolerate opposition, especially from his charges’ parents.

In 1992., Fernandez released the updated K-6 HIV/AIDS curriculum, but Dr. Impellizzeri checked him again. On May 27, 1992, the Board adopted four to three an Impellizzeri resolution that directed the chancellor to obey state laws which insist that AIDS educational programs “must stress abstinence as the most appropriate and effective premarital protection against AIDS.” The resolution also ordered that all material not complying with this rule be discarded and that “a form to be used for compliance… be subject to approval by the Board.” Educators, in other words, would have to promise to comply with the law.

Left-wing pols and the media went crazy. The pro-abstinence gang of four on the Board of Ed were branded “McCarthyites” for demanding “morality oaths.” The New York Times declared that by insisting the law be obeyed, the Board was holding a “million school kids hostage.”

Scores of education and health bureaucrats refused to comply. Health Commissioner Margaret Hamburg labeled the so-called oath “abhorrent” and announced she would advise lecturers from her department not to sign. Reflecting on the outbursts, Impellizzeri said, “the reaction simply confirms my suspicions that some guest lecturers are not really interested in stressing abstinence.”

One school board member reminded the outraged counselors that they could still “come in with their green cucumbers and pink condoms and show the children how to put condoms on cucumbers.”

A September 2 New York Post editorial summed up the controversy:

The pledge, meanwhile, is just that—a pledge. The fact that it touched off such a furor leads us to suspect that it probably was necessary if Board policy was to be carried out…. That policy, after all, hasn’t changed. Groups that have refused to sign the pledge—thus formally rejecting the abstinence first policy—in all likelihood had no intention of conforming to it in the first place… Many other groups—there are more than 200 of them—have agendas of their own; a good number of them favor explicit instruction in safe-sex techniques—both heterosexual and homosexual—to the exclusion of all else.

Irene Impellizzeri’s steadfastness began to pay off. In early September, thousands of Hispanics and blacks marched on City Hall to demand that Fernandez halt his defiance of teaching abstinence. The neighborhood revolt had begun.

No Compromise with Evil

After 15 years on the school board, Mary Cummins thought she had seen everything. But on the February 1992. day she perused the package that arrived from II° Livingston Street, the President of Queens School Board 24 realized the bureaucrats had outdone themselves with the Rainbow Curriculum. “I cannot compromise with evil,” she told a friend. And her board agreed—they rejected the curriculum in April by nine to zero. Before long, half the city’s School Boards followed her lead by rejecting parts or all of the program.

Chancellor Fernandez was livid; he demanded in early September that the rebel district produce an acceptable alternative by the end of October. Cummins struck back by organizing a protest. “We’re taking this right to the chancellor’s front door,” she said. “He and the mayor will know that they are on a hot seat. The clergy at the rally will represent congregations of tens of thousands. That translates into a lot of votes, especially when you add in tens of thousands of parents.”

On October 6, 1992, over 2,000 concerned parents marched on the Board of Education headquarters. The Reverend Michael Faulkner, associate pastor at Manhattan’s Calvary Baptist Church, expressed the crowd’s sentiment with these words: “A change is coming. We will no longer tolerate those destructive ideas that are destroying our families…. Our children should not be treated like animals. Abstinence is not a dirty word.”

The controversy did not end with the demonstration. In a letter dated November 12, 1992, Mary Cummins answered Fernandez’s ultimatum:

As we always have in the past, we are going to continue to teach our students to appreciate the wide variety of religious traditions and racial and ethnic cultures represented in contemporary American society. We are also going to continue to teach our students to love their country, to obey its laws, and to foster unity and harmony by behaving fairly and decently toward everyone they encounter.

However, we are not going to teach our children to treat all types of human behavior as equally safe, wholesome or acceptable. On the contrary, we are going to teach them that they should never engage in conduct that would cause harm to others or themselves…. Accordingly, we are not going to make any use of your teaching guide entitled Children of the Rainbow-First Grade because it is shot through with dangerously misleading propaganda.

On November 16, another letter was sent that defined the Queens District’s own multicultural program, “Reaching Out”:

In reply to your letter dated November 16, 1992, please be advised that this district is convinced that our multicultural education is in full compliance with Board of Education policy, and we, therefore, reject your suggestion that it needs to be expanded to include material aimed at promoting acceptance of sodomy.

Because Cummins and her colleagues boycotted a December 1 pow-wow at 110 Livingston Street, Fernandez suspended the nine duly elected representatives of Community School Board 24 on December 2, 1992. The District was seized by Fernandez appointed trustees (all Board of Ed bureaucrats), who were ordered to implement the Rainbow Curriculum.

Fernandez may have appeared triumphant, but many political wags soon sensed a changed in the political climate. A December 6 New York Times article admitted that the curriculum, “like all those approved by the chancellor’s office is merely an advisory document and local boards can use it or ignore it as they like.” This comment seemed out of character for a paper whose editorial three days earlier was entitled, “Chancellor Fernandez Stands Tall.” Similarly, a front-page Newsday investigative report revealed that the curriculum (two years in preparation) was hastily pasted together and that Fernandez never read the entire 430 pages.

At the December 9 meeting of the Board of Education, a motion to reinstate Mary Cummins’ District 24 School Board was approved six to zero with one abstention. The affirmative votes included Mayor David Dinkins’ two appointees—H. Carl McCall and Dr. Westina L. Matthews.

One month later, the reinstated Mary Cummins faxed a letter to the seven Board of Education members:

The proverbial twelve days of Christmas have now passed and we still have no reply to the letter we faxed Chancellor Fernandez on December 23 offering him a choice of two alternative ways to mediate our dispute…. Under the circumstances we can only conclude that he has no genuine interest in mediation. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the only thing he is interested in is a face-saving statement—no mediation, no retraction of Children of the Rainbow, and no legal showdown in which he would have to defend it.

The unrepentant Mary Cummins, representing the ordinary parents in her district, had faced down the central bureaucrats and foiled their efforts to indoctrinate New York’s children. The Queens School Board remains, but the controversial curriculum is dying a slow death, and few expect Chancellor Fernandez’s contract, which expires in June, to be renewed. In this battle, the city’s patches of green beat Big Brother.

Elite Intolerance

“Ideology,” wrote political philosopher Eric Voegelin, “is existence in rebellion against God and man.” It is an intellectual system that claims exclusive knowledge about reaching perfection in the temporal world. The ideological formulas of the intellectuals may vary, but their ends remain the same: the domination of man. Since their formulas are absolute, dissent is not tolerated. Subjects are often terrorized into submission, and New York’s curriculum battle revealed that ideological central bureaucrats, professing to be open to diversity, actually tolerate no deviation from their party line.

Dr. Irene Impellizzeri was ridiculed and vilified by the media, falsely accused of being a puppet of the Catholic Church, while Newsday found her guilty of “grandstanding” when she refused to bend.

Chancellor Fernandez, who described District 24 members as “malicious” for daring to disagree with him, even wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece questioning the democratic process by which they were elected. Since only six to seven percent of the voters turn out in school board elections, he reasoned, those elected were not truly representative of the “district’s diverse student body of 28,000 children.” Of course, he assumes his position is representative, even though he landed his job on the votes of only seven non-elected officials. Fernandez even dismissed those seven Board of Ed members who hired him as “nitpicking” and “intimidating” because they dared to exercise their legal powers.

Board of Ed member Ninfa Segarra, who has two children in Bronx public schools, was pressured to resign by Mayor Dinkins and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer because she stuck with the gang of four on the abstinence dispute. Chancellor Fernandez, according to the New York Times, “called Ninfa Segarra… a political prostitute because she changed her position on condom distribution.” Reacting to this tremendous pressure, Segarra, who refused to quit, said her adversaries “are attacking us because we didn’t vote their way. So why should a majority view on any position even be respected?”

Ms. Segarra’s observation is telling. When the mayor realized he couldn’t get his way, he called for a restructuring of the Board that would permit him to pack it with his lackeys. There was even talk around City Hall of plans to scrap the decentralized school system altogether.

The media painted the opposition to Fernandez as hateful and bigoted. Newsday described the controversy as “idiotic… a stupid waste.” The New York Times scorned the District 24 Board as “all white, conservative, and Roman Catholic.” The October 6 march on the Board of Education was ignored—the New York Times, newspaper of record, did not devote one line to the event.

So much for tolerating diversity.

The city of New York’s educational system is in shambles. Illiterates receive diplomas and the drop out rate stands at 30 percent. In the 1991-92 school year, over a thousand weapons were confiscated, and 100 gun incidents left eight dead.

And yet for the cultural elites, this crisis takes a back seat. They are only concerned with their agenda, which one commentator described as a “rigidly uniform ideology that is alien to most people and has to be imposed from above.”

The actions of Irene Impellizzeri and Mary Cummins confirm Michael Novak’s view, expressed in his 1972 work The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, that a politics based on family and neighborhood is far stronger than a politics based on bureaucracy. The real story from New York is that elite bureaucrats can be defeated by communities willing to defend the public morality that sustains them.


  • George J. Marlin

    George J. Marlin is the author/editor of 14 books including The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact and Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man. His articles have appeared in numerous periodicals including The New York Times, New York Post, National Review, Newsday, The Washington Times and the New York Daily News.

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