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Schools socked by Christian right.

NEW YORK -- New Yorkers went to the polls May 4 to vote in citywide school board elections that had become the latest battleground in a national drive by Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition to gain national influence through local politics.

But the issues that moved the elections into the national spotlight -- voluntary prayer in school, the right of parents to steer their children from classes they deem immoral, and tolerance of homosexuals in classrooms -- seemed far removed from the concerns of a group of inner-city high school students who spoke with NCR.

"Students feel alone and afraid. They're facing drugs, they're facing teen pregnancy," said Mandy MacBurney, 21, mother of a 2-year-old. MacBurney is a student at the East River Alternative School, in the basement of a Harlem housing project. "They give up because they don't have anyone to push them, to show that they can do it."

A year after setting up shop in New York, Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition has helped turn the school board elections here into a lightning rod for conservative and liberal activists.

After the New York archdiocese agreed two weeks ago to distribute a Christian Coalition-produced school board voter's guide, progressive heavies like the Rev. Al Sharpton and the American Civil Liberties Union joined forces to "fight the right" during the elections.

Right fight

The fact that the coalition's chosen issues have become the subject of such high-powered controversy here is testament to the success of the Christian right's efforts to transform American politics from the bottom up.

Christian fundamentalist-backed candidates have been winning races in school boards, hospital boards and county party committees all over the country for several years. But when the coalition first set up shop in largely Democratic New York a year ago, few observers expected they would achieve anything more than status as a political novelty.

That changed two weeks ago when the archdiocese offered to help distribute the voter's guide. The move was seen by some school board activists as a blessing of legitimacy for Robertson.

That blessing could have national significance, said Barbara Handman, New York director of People For the American Way, a First Amendment advocacy group. New York has the country's largest school district, with 543 candidates running for 288 school board seats in 32 local districts.

Terry Twerell, producer of the voter's guide and pastor of the Living World Christian Center in Manhattan, said Robertson's group has also cooperated with the Catholic church in Chicago and Detroit.

"We feel the public school system in New York has really gotten away from basic education," said Jeff Baran, executive director for the Christian Coalition in New York state. "Too much emphasis has been placed on social issues -- teaching kids the sexual practices of homosexuals."

Pedagogy of poverty

As part of their national strategy, the New York Christian Coalition is working to educate "pro-family Christians" about what the issues are so they can act on them, Twerell said.

In New York, those issues include parents' rights to inspect instructional materials and methods, teaching about homosexuality and premarital relations, and emphasis on abolishing extramarital sex among teens, according to the voter's guide.

However, Ricardo Muniz, who teaches at the East River Alternative School, said he is more concerned about keeping his students alive and attending classes.

"I truly wish I had time to worry about whether it was moral to discuss homosexuality in my class," said Muniz. "If they want to find out what's going on in schools, they should sit in class, go to the students' homes, talk to their parents, walk around their neighborhood."

They would not find students troubled by morality in classrooms, Muniz said. Instead, they would meet kids who come from single- or no-parent families, live in poverty, fear violence and find themselves lost in crowded classrooms, he said.

"There are very few poor districts in this city where children are getting a chance to learn," said Jeanne Frankl of the New York City Public Education Association.

Stairway to nowhere

East River is one of 160 one-room alternative schools in the New York public school system charged with giving students a second chance at a diploma or an equivalency degree, Muniz said.

These students are trying to finish high school after dropping out or being kicked out of regular New York public schools. Two-thirds of the girls in Muniz's class have at least one child, the boys talk openly of time they have spent peddling drugs, and a recent graduate returned to the school only after spending time in prison on weapons charges.

During the week before the school board elections, Muniz's students talked in class about struggling to earn their diplomas. They described feeling lonely and frustrated in school, and fighting pressure from their friends to sell drugs, to drop out.

"You see them making money, so you want to go out there, too. You want to be with your friends," said James Brown, a towering 17-year-old who lives in the East River Housing Project that shares his school's name.

"It's like you're on this big stairway, and it's taking you years and years and years to get to your destination," said Brown. "You get frustrated. I want to get my life together. I want to get out of the projects."

Several girls described seeking solace in pregnancy.

MacBurney said, "Young people are having babies because they need somebody to love. They want to have somebody who will appreciate them."

Student Margarita Lebon, 20-year-old mother of three children ages 5, 4 and a 3-month-old, said having children "messes up your attendance in school" She said, "You got to take care of your children and go to appointments and all that. They get sick a lot and I got to take care of them."

For some students, the problems confronting them create a vicious cycle.

Fifteen-year-old Lamont Forin, who was kicked out of several schools for fighting and other offenses, explained it this way: "In regular high schools, there's a lot of kids together. When you put all them kids together, there's going to be a dispute. Kids drop out because they think no one cares, or they don't care because they weren't taught to care.

"When you drop out, you can't get a good job so you start selling drugs. So you get arrested and you go to jail. When you get out, you don't know you can go back to school, so you go back to selling drugs and you get arrested again, and it keeps going on and on." Editor's note: Election results were not available at press time.
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Title Annotation:New York City school board election, May 4, 1993
Author:Smith, Matt
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:May 14, 1993
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