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Two years after a tragic accident, activists are celebrating a major victory.

Those who place the blame on executive greed may be missing the larger point.

Ever since the 1954 Brown decision outlawing "separate but equal" schools, various popular movements have upheld a vision of public schools as essential to democracy and have demanded legal protections for those previously marginalized--from Title IX prohibitions against gender-based discrimination, to the right to a bilingual education, to the inclusion of students with disabilities in public school classrooms, to the demand that public schools respect the rights of gay and lesbian students. On February 20 the Supreme Court took up a case that could lead to an about-face on this half-century of struggle.

The Justices heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of a school voucher program in Cleveland in which tax dollars pay for tuition at private schools. Roughly 4,300 Cleveland students currently receive vouchers, and 99.4 percent of them attend religious schools. The case's significance goes beyond vouchers to whether public education will be replaced by a marketplace system in which the role of the public is limited to making an individual "choice" to attend a particular school. The case also holds enormous potential to further George W. Bush's "faith based" initiatives promoting religious groups in the redefinition and privatization of the public sector.

The legal heart of the Cleveland case is whether the voucher program violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government endorsement of religion. The Justices are sharply divided, and many observers expect the Court to issue a narrow ruling on the specifics of the Cleveland case. But even a narrow holding would have broad ramifications.

Vouchers have been a bedrock of the conservative agenda to privatize education and provide public dollars for private religious education. The ability to move that agenda forward, however, has been hampered by the legal cloud over vouchers. To gain support, voucher supporters have fostered the image that vouchers are merely a way to provide options to low-income minority parents whose children are trapped in failing urban schools. But if the Court accepts the pro-voucher argument that there is no government endorsement of religion because the voucher goes to parents, that reasoning can extend to all parents regardless of income. It can also extend to social services other than education.

Should the Cleveland case pass constitutional muster, one of the immediate issues facing the voucher movement is how to make the move to universal vouchers without jeopardizing the political capital it's gained by seeming to befriend low-income minorities. The perception is that the Cleveland voucher program is aimed at African-Americans, but that's wrong. African-Americans constitute 71 percent of the students in the Cleveland public schools, yet they account for only 53 percent of voucher students. Whites, meanwhile, make up 19 percent of Cleveland's public school students but 29 percent of voucher students.

For voucher opponents, a Supreme Court decision upholding the Cleveland program will move the battle from the courts to the policy arena. Two issues will immediately come to the fore--money and accountability. The money issue is simple. Taxpayer support for education is limited, particularly during recessionary times, and the money that goes to private schools will reduce taxpayer willingness to fund public schools. This will undercut the movement for funding equity for urban public schools and diminish funds for such important reforms as smaller classes, improved teacher quality and reducing the achievement gap between whites and African-Americans and Latinos. Vouchers also undermine the calls for greater accountability. If the government tries to impose the same accountability on voucher schools as on public schools, it runs the risk of excessive "entanglement" in religion, violating church/state separation.

As voucher attorney Clint Bolick has argued, regulation of voucher schools "should be limited. It should not include any state oversight of curriculum, personnel or administration. Any program that creates extensive involvement by the state in the schools' internal affairs is likely to be found an unconstitutional excessive entanglement." In Milwaukee, home to the country's oldest and largest voucher program, accountability is so lax that no academic data have been collected from voucher schools for more than six years. As a result, no one knows how students in voucher schools are performing academically. Furthermore, the voucher schools don't have to provide the same level of services for special education students or students who don't speak English. Because constitutional rights like due process are not applicable in private schools, voucher schools can suspend or expel students at will.

Many people don't appreciate the threat vouchers pose. Who can disagree that public schools, particularly in urban areas, fail too many students? But it would be shortsighted to abandon public education and accept the myth that vouchers and privatization are the answer. Public education tries to fulfill our vision of a more democratic America, with public institutions responsible to, and controlled by, the public. The voucher movement betrays that vision. It treats education as a mere consumer item and asks us to settle for the "choice" to apply to a private school that itself does the choosing.

He's created new projects, made new friends--and some bitter enemies.

The success of Michael Bloomberg's $69 million race for Mayor of New York against Mark Green was widely seen as a setback for campaign finance reform. But the Bloomberg campaign demonstrated the limits of campaign finance reform under the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution, not its failure.

On March 5 San Franciscans will have the opportunity to vote for an
electoral system that elected "Red Ken" Livingstone as London's Mayor and
Mary Robinson as Ireland's President and catapulted

Throwing the book at people is nothing new, but in our post-9/11 world the screws are tightening. Take San Francisco, whose District Attorney is Terence "Kayo" Hallinan, a progressive fellow. Indeed, in his 2000 re-election bid Hallinan survived years of abuse in the San Francisco Chronicle for supposedly being altogether too slack a prosecutor, with poor conviction rates and kindred offenses betokening softness on crime.

Yet this is the same Hallinan who's hit two gay AIDS activists with an escalating barrage of charges, currently amounting to forty-one alleged felonies and misdemeanors, all adding up to what he has stigmatized in the local press as "terrorism." That's a trigger word these days, as Sarah Jane Olson, a k a Kathleen Soliah, recently discovered when a judge put her away for twenty years to life for actions back in the 1970s.

Held in San Francisco County Jail since last November 28 are Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli. Neither man has been able to make bail, which Hallinan successfully requested to be set at $500,000 for Petrelis and $600,000 for Pasquarelli.

Why this astonishing bail? What it boils down to is that the two accused are dissidents notorious for raising all kinds of inconvenient, sometimes obscene hell about AIDS issues. They've long been detested by San Francisco's AIDS establishment, which Petrelis in particular has savaged as being disfigured by overpaid executives, ineffective HIV-prevention campaigns and all-round complacency and sloth.

They've taken kooky positions. Pasquarelli, for example, believes that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. Petrelis hasn't scrupled to form alliances with right-wingers in Congress when it suits his tactical book. Being attacked by them can be an unpleasant experience. Who wants to get phoned in the middle of the night and be asked whether your wife has got your syphilitic dick in her mouth?

The two were thrown in jail because of an escalating campaign they launched late last year amid calls for an expansion of quarantining laws across the country, prompted by fears of bioterrorism. Petrelis and Pasquarelli took after an SF public health official, Jeffrey Klausner, for seeming to endorse quarantining of people with AIDS. They also assailed the media, notably the San Francisco Chronicle, for relaying what the two claimed were inflated statistics about increases in the rates of syphilis and HIV in San Francisco. The higher the stats, the more dollars flow to various AIDS bureaucracies. The Chronicle claimed tremulously that not only had its reporters been showered with filthy nocturnal calls to their homes but that there had been a bomb threat against the paper.

On the basis of what has surfaced so far, the charges and bail are way out of kilter with the facts of the case. Their severity defies logical explanation, unless we acknowledge the loathing Petrelis and Pasquarelli inspire in San Francisco's respectable element and among some well-known organizers.

Take Kate Sorensen, an AIDS activist who herself was held on $1 million bail for leading demonstrations outside the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia. The DA there took her to trial on three felonies, though she was only convicted of a misdemeanor. Such experiences have not evoked any solidarity with the San Francisco pair. Wrote Sorensen recently, "I will fight for our right to demonstrate. I will fight for our right to free speech. I will fight this police state, but I will not fight for you."

This self-righteous stance was elicited by an open letter of concern addressing the prosecution of Petrelis and Pasquarelli. Organized by the radical gay civil libertarian Bill Dobbs of Queer Watch, the open letter (go to www.openletteronline.com and look under "Politics & Activism," then "Petrelis-Pasquarelli") has been signed by hundreds, including many well-known gay figures like Harvey Fierstein, Scott Tucker, Barbara Smith and Judy Greenspan. The letter questions the motivation for the charges and makes the scarcely extremist demand that the two get fair legal treatment and reasonable bail.

Moderate though the terms of the letter are, it has aroused much fury from the San Francisco gay establishment, whose animus against Petrelis and Pasquarelli was what apparently prompted Hallinan to have the pair charged and arrested in the first place. On November 15 Martin Delaney of Project Inform, Mike Shriver of the mayor's office and fifteen others published a letter in the Bay Area Reporter urging people to pressure Hallinan, demanding "full prosecution of Pasquarelli, Petrelis and their collaborators."

Petrelis and Pasquarelli have a potent posse howling for their heads. "They fucked with the wrong people," said a health official quoted in the San Francisco Examiner on January 23. The "wrong people" include a broad swath of liberals and leftists in and out of government, the AIDS establishment and media figures.

Time was when a decent death threat used to be a badge of honor in the Fourth Estate. Jimmy Breslin recently recalled to Dobbs his glorious "Son of Sam" days, when violent threats were so routine at the New York Daily News that the paper's switchboard operator was wont to ask callers whether they were registering "general death threats" or "specific death threats for Mr. Breslin."

Granted, Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein is a terror survivor of "Attack by Lizard in the LA Zoo," and his wife, Sharon Stone, is the marquee celebrity for one of Petrelis's targets, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, but Bronstein should remember that Daily News phone operator and get off his high horse.

Hallinan's got a radical past and even radical pretensions. He knows as well as anyone that conspiracy charges have long been used to smash protest. And he knows as well as anyone that militant protest is at the cutting edge of social conscience. It's easy to grandstand about the foul tactics, the obscenities, the all-round vulgarity of Pasquarelli and Petrelis, but should this add up to a demand that they be thrown into prison for years? Of course it shouldn't. Judge Parker Meeks Jr. should resist the entreaties of the posse and cut the preposterous bail drastically or release them on their own recognizance. Hallinan should get his sense of perspective back, and drop the drastic charges.

Talk about rebuilding New York, and sooner or later someone will pipe up that out of crisis comes opportunity. It depends on where you stand. Right now what poor and working-class New Yorkers have got is crisis, and unless a force of historic proportion develops to shift the course of things, what will follow is more of the same.

Taking the crisis part first, it's well-known that New York has lost 95,000 jobs since September 11, less well-known that it lost 75,000 in the twelve months prior, and that even in boom times 1.5 million people, most of them with jobs, were turning to soup kitchens. Now those kitchens have had to turn people away for lack of food, and grassroots community agencies, to which for at least ten years government has outsourced a whole range of human services, are themselves against the wall. This past autumn Mayor Giuliani ordered every city department other than fire, police and the board of education to cut its budget by 15 percent, meaning nonprofit groups with city contracts took a similar cut. Governor Pataki froze state money at a cost to nonprofits of more than $200 million. Meanwhile, foundations warned they'd make fewer grants, smaller grants, their capital having been clobbered on the stock market. And in fashioning end-of-year appeals, every group strove to connect to 9/11, because that's the trigger for charitable giving. September 11 relief funds are bulging with $1.1 billion. There's so much cash available for grief counseling that the big charities are fairly begging to give it away, but for tackling the material sources of grief-as-everyday-life among people who can claim no direct link to the twin towers--that's trickier.

At the Good Old Lower East Side, a tenants' rights and neighborhood preservation organization, we are looking at a worst-case loss of $200,000 out of our $500,000 annual budget. Meanwhile, the work goes on--only now we worry because one of our organizers has had asthma attacks from the air downtown while at housing court, because a lot of people we work with are depressed and scared, because the supposed era of good feeling ushered in by the tragedy hasn't stopped landlord harassment or evictions, because gentrification steams forward in the Lower East Side, because low-income people never just have housing problems; they have employment problems and health problems and family problems and immigration problems, and all of those are getting worse. From our counterparts in other groups, in areas from children's rights to prisoners' rights, we hear the same story of too little money and too much need. Drug and alcohol abuse is up, domestic violence is up, homelessness is way up (30,000 adults and children in city shelters, an all-time high). In December some 30,000 New York City recipients of public assistance hit federal time limits for welfare; in 2002 19,000 more will lose their benefits, left to compete with 95,000 displaced workers for jobs and services that are barely there.

One has to be a keen shopper for silver linings to see opportunity in all this, but for the past months, in a variety of venues, groups like ours have been meeting with legal services agencies, immigrant groups, unions, community activists, progressive politicians, economic policy analysts and others to discuss a people's agenda for rebuilding. For years politicians have been pronouncing on the value of work; now the state's commitment to work, but also to a living, must be tested. And if there are to be tax incentives to private companies, there must be a return in jobs, environmental safety, an expanded economic infrastructure--transportation, housing, communications, health, education. People are asking, Can we think of rebuilding that enhances all of New York's boroughs? Can we look at those holes where the towers stood and boldly imagine a different city, a better city? And can we mobilize an army to fight for that vision?

Even in the best of times that would be difficult. Now there's recession, and unless some major revenue sources are tapped, State Senator Eric Schneiderman says, "we're looking at something that makes the New York fiscal crisis of the 1970s look like a picnic in Coney Island." Only a fraction of the $20 billion that Bush promised to the city in September has materialized. The state and city are both running many billions of dollars in deficits; when the governor and mayor come out with their budgets in January and February, they are likely to strike at every social program, the better to impress Washington with their resolve to shoot the wounded. Again, the nonprofit service contractors, which are small and diffuse but account for about 15 percent of the city's budget, will be an attractive target. So will the city's civilian work force, already shrunk by 20 percent since 1993.

Schneiderman, for one, is calling for a freeze on about $4 billion in state tax cuts scheduled to go into effect in 2002; for reinstatement of the city's commuter tax; for repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws, which, he says, would save the state hundreds of millions a year. There are other ideas, including exacting sacrifices from the top 10 percent of New York's population, who doubled their wealth in the boom, and from city property holders, whose average tax rate has been frozen for ten years. The point is for New York's social justice forces to be organized, ready to struggle for every dollar and demand every good. Some of the bigger unions are saying they might want to give Mayor Mike Bloomberg a "honeymoon." Some in the media are still flogging the idea that there's a "new" New York, more generous, more one-for-all. It's the same New York, just worse. Only the rich have opportunity by right. The rest of us have to fight for it.

The Bush administration's insistence on secrecy in the Whitey Bulger case raises some unsettling questions.

With a turn of season comes a turn of politicians—now we've got a billionaire mayor.

Blogs

And that’s good news for the progressive mayor.

April 8, 2014

If the UPK fight defined the first 100 days of the mayor’s current term, housing will likely dominate the remaining 1,360 days.

April 7, 2014

Looks like the US attorney is calling witnesses to testify, on both Bridgegate and the Hoboken charges.

April 5, 2014

The Supreme Court may want more money in politics, but the American people do not. Wisconsin towns, villages and cities overwhelmingly back a call to amend big money out of politics.

April 3, 2014

The mayor wants to break down some of the barriers that distance power from people. Good call.

April 3, 2014

The New Jersey governor may have acted illegally in diverting $1.8 billion from the Port Authority to pet projects in the state.

April 2, 2014

Despite well-funded opposition, New York’s mayor was able to deliver on the biggest commitment of last year’s campaign.

April 1, 2014

Communities nationwide are calling for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics. On Tuesday, Wisconsin towns will join the fight.

March 31, 2014

Every $1 billion invested in the U.S. transportation infrastructure supports and creates some 47,500 jobs.

March 27, 2014

San Francisco is in the midst of a war, but it’s not about culture.

March 24, 2014