Trouble over the Rainbow

Controversy Engulfs NYC’s Multicultural Curriculum

By Stan Karp

In a sudden end to his three years as head of the nation’s largest school system, New York City School’s Chancellor Joseph Fernandez found a pink slip instead of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Following a powerful and at times ugly mobilization against the multicultural guide Children of the Rainbow, which urged “respect for the diversity of families” including gay and lesbian parents, the Central Board voted 4-3 in February not to renew Fernandez’s contract when it expires in June.

While the dismissal threw the city’s schools into further turmoil, its implications extend beyond New York. The controversy over the Rainbow curriculum raised crucial questions about the meaning of “multicultural education” and about how schools should address explosive issues of prejudice in an increasingly diverse and divided society. It also posed questions about what role parents will play in efforts to remake a public school system that remains in crisis in many parts of the country.

The fierce fight over Children of the Rainbow took many by surprise. The guide was compiled to implement mandates from the Central Board, which in 1989 had called for measures to counteract discrimination against students, parents, or school personnel on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, sexual orientation and/or handicapping condition. An Office of Multicultural Education was created, reflecting a national trend toward multicultural reform.

In general, this trend has been more a delayed reaction to events than a radical innovation. Demographic changes in public school populations, which will raise the number of minority students to 40% by the end of the 1990s, are pushing schools to more accurately reflect in their curriculums the changes in their classrooms. The trend is also an aftershock of the civil rights and social struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.

Social movements for the rights of African Americans, women, disabled people, gays and lesbians, and others have already forced changes in cultural sensibilities and federal and state law. Several decades of academic scholarship have revised traditionally narrow versions of literature and history. Lumbering school bureaucracies, which have rarely been on the cutting edge of change, are simply trying to catch up by taking a closer look at their textbooks, course outlines, and bulletin boards.

At another level, however, multicultural education is a potentially explosive issue. Racial tensions increased in the 1980s with the administrations of Reagan, Bush, and, in New York, Mayor Ed Koch all contributing. Police murders of young black men and other racially charged confrontations are familiar features of the nightly news. Blacks

and Jews continue to clash on several fronts. While the gay community has attained new visibility and political influence, religious institutions and sizable portions of popular opinion remain stubbornly resistant to their inclusion. NYC police record 500 bias incidents a year, with thousands of others unreported.

Against this background, a broad, if superficial, consensus developed that promoting harmony among the city’s nearly 1,000 schools and 1 million students was crucial.

Children of the Rainbow was an attempt to address this issue in a comprehensive and somewhat bureaucratic fashion. Conceived more as a resource guide for teachers than a formal curriculum for students, it was produced by central office personnel with review by a 25-member advisory board. The book is filled mostly with strategies for developing academic and social skills appropriate for first graders. There’s an emphasis on celebrating diversity, building self-esteem, and encouraging constructive group interaction. The 440 pages that have been largely ignored during the heated controversy are typically devoted to methods for setting up classroom learning centers, instructions for making Chinese New Year’s scrolls, and the words and music to the Animal Nonsense Song.

One section on “societal concerns” speaks directly to the pressures growing numbers of kids face early on. This section gives teachers suggestions for dealing with homeless students, “latch-key” children, physically or emotionally abused kids, kids touched by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, etc. It’s here that three pages on “Understanding family structures to meet children’s needs” mention the special circumstances of students with gay/lesbian parents. The section was drafted by a lesbian first grade teacher who was added to the curriculum writing project after gay rights advocates, with the help of the Mayor’s office, succeeded in getting access to Fernandez and raising their concerns about the climate of hate and gay-bashing in the city.

In the fall of 1991, the curriculum guide was adopted by the Chancellor’s office with little notice. Even most gay right’s advocates, parent’s groups, and education activists had their attention focused elsewhere, including a contentious debate over the Chancellor’s HIV/AIDS curriculum and condom distribution policies for the high schools. (Fernandez’s opponents wanted an AIDS curriculum that preached abstinence instead of safe sex, and wanted condoms made available only with parental consent. Fernandez prevailed after bitter battles, although the HIV/AIDS curriculum was weakened by a central board resolution requiring all consultants hired from outside the school system to emphasize abstinence.) Like the city’s racial climate, debate over school policy was becoming highly polarized.

Bigotry Explodes

Children of the Rainbow was sent to the district boards for use in the schools. Like others before it which had embodied good intentions, the thick manual might ordinarily have collected dust on the shelf while teachers coped with the daily crisis of survival in NYC public schools. The extensive program of staff training, resources, and administrative support necessary to put the curriculum guide into practice was not in place. Most schools and teachers never heard about Children of the Rainbow until Community School Board (CSB) #24 in Queens used it to light a fire last spring.

District 24 is routinely described as “conservative, heavily Catholic, and middle class.” But over 70% of the 28,000 students in the district’s public schools are children of color. The area has the fastest-growing immigrant population in the city and some of the most overcrowded schools. The nine-member community school board, however, is all white. One member is a priest. Six have sent their children to private schools.

Mary Cummins, the board president who became the symbol of resistance to Children of the Rainbow, was elected with 346 votes in local board elections that drew about 7% of eligible voters. Cummins ran the board in authoritarian fashion and was no champion of grassroots parental involvement. District 24 was the only local board to file suit against new regulations that sought to expand parental participation in the selection of principals and administrators.

Parent groups inside the district publicly complained about the local board’s high-handed ways.

Cummins and her board were already angry at the Chancellor over his AIDS and condom policies, though there was little they could do directly to block them, since high schools fall under the jurisdiction of the central rather than district board. Church leaders, including Cardinal John O’Connor, encouraged District 24’s opposition, eventually providing legal and other assistance. When Cummins received the Rainbow curriculum, she reportedly consulted with Howard Hurwitz of the right-wing Family Defense Council, who “immediately recognized it as part of the homosexual movement. It was gay and lesbian propaganda.”

CSB #24 rejected Children of the Rainbow out of hand. Using at least $7,000 in public funds, Cummins began a campaign of letters and mailings attacking the guide, contending it contained “dangerous misinformation about sodomy.”

“We will not accept two people of the same sex engaged in deviant sex practices as ‘family’,” she wrote. Tapping into the furor over the AIDS curriculum, she added, “The victims of this AIDS scourge are homosexuals, bisexuals, intravenous users of illicit drugs and the innocent people they infect by exposing them to their tainted blood and other bodily fluids…[Fernandez] would teach our kids that sodomy is acceptable but virginity is something weird.”

For many people inside and outside the schools, news reports of District 24’s snarling response to Children of the Rainbow was the first they heard of the curriculum. This insured that a complicated debate about how schools should handle sensitive, controversial issues would take place under the glare of sensational media attention against a backdrop of foaming anti-gay bigotry.

The central office process that produced Children of the Rainbow had excluded most district board members, parents, and teachers. Chancellor Fernandez’s 25-member advisory board and the review process at the Board’s Brooklyn headquarters were no substitute for an inclusive debate that might have created support for the curriculum before it arrived in the mail from 110 Livingston St. (At the very least, as one district board member pointed out, more local input would have let Fernandez know what he was in for.) Even gay activists later acknowledged that they had relied too heavily on lobbying Central Board personnel while Catholic, Pentecostal, and other church groups were mobilizing anti-gay sentiment in the boroughs.

When he returned to his native New York in 1990, Fernandez had brought with him a somewhat heavy-handed reputation from Miami. Though he won support from progressives for his AIDS and condom policies, for initiatives to create new, smaller high schools, and for being an effective advocate for public education, he was still, in the eyes of some critics, “a man with a plan and a two-by-four.”

As a matter of principle, the Chancellor deserved support for insisting that “at some time in the elementary school grades,” schools must deal “proactively with the issue of same sex families.” But when it comes to public schools, support for teaching progressive views on sexual, racial, or similar issues needs to be carefully mobilized as part of a democratic debate. Public schools almost by definition are obligated to act as mediators and conciliators in the face of controversy.

Schools are highly vulnerable to emotional posturing, particularly when it comes from parents or “taxpayers,” and they can easily be immobilized by polarizing crises. Where prejudice or bigotry exists, it absolutely needs to be challenged and exposed and, if necessary, restrained by central authorities from depriving minorities of their right to be represented and protected in public life. But top-down administrative measures, no matter how well-intentioned, have decidedly limited and mixed impact.

Progressive curriculum policies emanating from the top of large public school systems may be likened to federal civil rights laws passed in the 60s. After much grassroots struggle, federal laws attempted to codify democratic impulses and transform deeply-rooted practices like segregation. Yet just as civil rights laws ran into “state’s rights” bigotry tinged with populist resentment, so too progressive education policies endorsed at the top may run into righteous resistance from conservative parents and local communities. In the final analysis, the added rounds of education, organizing, and political struggle it takes to turn progressive policy into actual practice must occur at the school and community level. Administrative support for such campaigns can be crucial to their success. But bureaucratic directives alone, imposed from the top, won’t get the job done.

In the case of Children of the Rainbow, CSB #24’s defiance touched a chord of populist resentment against a traditionally heavy-handed educational bureaucracy. This helped lift it above the realm of Cummins’ crackpot bigotry and turn it into an angry cry that resonated in many parts of the city. When the Chancellor suspended the District 24 local board after its deliberately provocative rejection of the Rainbow curriculum, he reinforced dictatorial impressions — so much so that the Central Board ultimately reversed the suspension and undercut the Chancellor’s position.

But a populist rallying cry against the central administration wasn’t the only weapon Fernandez’s opponents had. There were some dubious aspects of the curriculum itself. Children of the Rainbow was unusual in explicitly suggesting that teachers initiate discussion of gay/lesbian issues with first graders. The guide urged teachers to “include references to lesbians/ gay people in all curricular areas” and promote “actual experiences via creative play, books, visitors, etc. in order for them to view lesbians/gays as real people to be respected and appreciated.” Exactly what this means for 5-and 6-year olds with no clear notions of adult sexuality is problematic.

Certain sections also provided unnecessary ammunition to critics intent on alarmist distortion. While the guide’s aim was clearly to promote tolerance and respect for same sex families, the controversial section that discusses gay households is titled “Fostering positive attitudes toward sexuality.” However related, positive attitudes toward sexuality and tolerance of gay and lesbian families are different issues. Similarly, even some who worked on the curriculum later acknowledged that it was a mistake to include books like Heather Has Two Mommies or Gloria Goes to Gay Pride in a list for first graders. The books are too hard for first graders to read, and they raise issues more appropriate for older kids. Instead of clarifying the intent of the curriculum, the books became red flags for opponents eager to appeal to the worst fears of straight parents.

Gays and lesbians understandably view AIDS education, homophobia, and the bigotry which drives disproportionate numbers of gay youth to suicide as matters of survival. But first grade classrooms are not necessarily the place to address these issues except in the most general ways.

Collapsing issues of sexual orientation with issues of tolerance for all people including gays and lesbians can even reinforce what Village Voice writer Donna Minkowitz described as “the tendency…to think of gays and lesbians in sexual terms—not in terms of culture, history, romances and families.”

The few debatable features of the curriculum in no way justified the hysterical distortions Cummins and company raised about “teaching sodomy” or “recruiting children to the homosexual life-style.” Nevertheless, they did put Rainbow supporters on the defensive, and they stand as a caution to progressives elsewhere about the care necessary to unite the broadest possible consensus around progressive approaches to teaching about topics like sexual or cultural identity. Democratic process and clear guidelines are essential.

If the response to Children of the Rainbow showed how complicated it is to put multicultural education into classroom practice, it also showed what a reservoir of bigotry and hatred its opponents have to draw on. “A curriculum that was designed to promote tolerance has instead revealed an astonishing level of homophobia,” noted Ron Madison, a member of the Gay and Lesbian Teachers Association. As District 24’s campaign continued into the fall, it spread to other districts, leading to at least two threats on Fernandez’s life, police protection for several local school boards, and outbreaks of violence at several public meetings.

Subsidized busloads of parents and angry residents descended on community school board meetings to condemn the curriculum. Conservative whites who had opposed civil rights, affirmative action, and bilingual education made common cause with religious Latino communities. Gay rights advocates were baited as the representatives of an elite, white agenda which had never been concerned about other racial or ethnic minorities. Sharp class divisions surfaced between gay professionals and black, Latino, and white working class constituencies.

Brooklyn’s District 15, a Latino, African American, white working class, and Catholic area which also has a sizable gay and lesbian community, reflected all these tensions. Norm Fruchter, CSB #15 president and a long-time parent advocate and education activist, recalls, “From the first meeting in September, it was very clear that there was a very large, incredibly aggravated, almost panic-stricken group of people, predominantly Latino, who were mobilized around the curriculum issue.” Progressive members on the local board wanted to counter distortions of the curriculum and limit the extent of the growing polarization. Working with the more conservative members, they settled on a series of meetings that would give the community the sort of input they hadn’t had earlier.

It seemed like a good place to start.

Heather Lewis, a parent activist and District 15 board member, remembers the November hearing as “a model of what democracy should be. It was difficult because there were very strong feelings on both sides, but democracy is messy.” Over 90 people spoke and many were “incredibly moving.” But while this was exactly the sort of process needed to create a constituency for tolerance, it also exposed the depth and complexity of the tensions involved.

Most of those who spoke in support of the curriculum were white and, in many cases, professional or middle class. “I’m gay and I’m a homeowner,” some speakers asserted in the course of impassioned pleas for their rights, as if their mortgages somehow lent legitimacy to their status. (Conversely, the newspapers rarely failed to call Rainbow supporters “activists” while its opponents were usually “parents.”) Still, as Fruchter saw it, many gay advocates, given their own anger and pain, found it difficult to recognize the fears and resentments of the groups which had been maneuvered into opposition against them: “I’m not sure how many people saw the class aspects of it at all. I think what many people saw were opponents, and sometimes they saw people acting only out of ignorance. Those perceptions didn’t help.”

Most of those who spoke against the curriculum were Latino, along with black or white working-class parents. While their opposition to the curriculum was undoubtedly heavily motivated by religious views, there were other concerns at work as well. “The schools aren’t teaching kids to read and write,” some complained. “Why don’t schools leave this personal stuff to the families and concentrate on the basics?” Such arguments, even if disingenuous, also struck a chord. School failure is a desperate issue in many communities. If anti-bias education is to win broad support it has to be integrated at the school level in the overall context of effective educational programs, rather than introduced as isolated statements of political policy.

Even in District 15, which had pioneered several anti-bias initiatives and had significant progressive leadership, reasoned debate was overwhelmed by the passions unleashed by the organized campaign against the Children of the Rainbow. A group called Concerned Parents for Educational Accountability circulated videotapes linking the curriculum to “the homosexual conspiracy.” Lillian Lopez, another parent and district board member, recalls parents “in different neighborhoods saying the same thing,” as if they’d been coached. Heather Lewis says “it became almost like a witch-hunt.” Parents would make wild claims about what might happen and declare, “I can’t rest at home if I know that one teacher in the district may do this.”

Things Turn Ugly

When it came time to make a decision things turned ugly. Lopez recalls the session at which District 15 adopted its compromise resolution: “It wasn’t a discussion; it was the most horrible display of human intolerance and bad behavior and the ugly side of people. Anybody that got up to speak for the curriculum was told to shut up, sit down, go home. There were more than enough obscenities yelled out. By the time it came down to vote, people were on their feet yelling at us, and all we could do was yell out our vote. The only one who had any chance to say anything was the one board member who voted against it. The police had to escort us out. It was particularly humiliating, one of the most humiliating things I was ever a part of. We could not reason, at no moment.”

District 15’s resolution called for using Children of the Rainbow to support first grade teachers in their efforts to promote multiculturalism and reduce bias. It also reaffirmed the board’s “belief that the most effective curricula are developed at the district and school levels rather than at the Central Board” and called for meetings at every school to discuss how “the district’s goals of respect for family and cultural diversity, tolerance, bias awareness and conflict resolution” were being addressed. In response to critics’ claims and parents’ fears, the resolution stated that “there will be no specific references to sexuality in first grade” and that schools should disregard any “specific reference to teaching about sexual orientation.” Some gay and lesbian activists complained that this retreated too far, but since the real intent of the Rainbow curriculum was to teach tolerance, not sexuality, CSB #15 members argued that the resolution effectively undercut the opposition while preserving the goal of promoting respect for all groups including gays and lesbians. The resolution passed 7 to 1.

Progressives responded in several other ways. People About Changing Education (PACE), a multiracial activist group that publishes a citywide paper on school issues called School Voices, initiated a broadly-based Campaign for Inclusive Multicultural Education. The Campaign enlisted hundreds of individuals and organizations in support of the Rainbow curriculum. Through news releases, press conferences and public forums, the Campaign helped raise the profile of progressive Latino, African American, and Jewish groups which spoke up for multicultural inclusion in the very communities that the right had mobilized against it.

More than half of the local boards responded to protests by delaying mention of gays and lesbians to 5th or 6th grade or otherwise modifying the guide. Fernandez readily accepted these changes and also ordered several of the most controversial passages in the guide rewritten. “Heather” and her two moms were taken off the reading list. But CSB #24 remained completely hostile to the curriculum and refused repeated invitations to submit an alternative. To die-hard opponents, the wording and the details were almost beside the point. They were looking for ways to sharpen the confrontation, not defuse it.

The Opt-out Option

A number of people, including writer and gay advocate Richard Goldstein, supported proposals to let parents “opt-out” of curriculum units they deemed inappropriate by pulling their kids out of class. When “two powerful commitments — like gay rights and parental rights — collide,” Goldstein argued, opt-outs make sense. “What is at stake here has less to do with discrimination than with the power of central authorities to determine educational standards without parental consent. That’s a battle progressives have been waging for decades against these same authorities.”

But while it may sometimes make tactical sense to propose such provisions as a way to limit resistance to teaching about homosexuality and other topics like abortion, opt-outs really beg the issue. For one thing, the anti-bias intentions of the Rainbow curriculum are not confined to particular units that parents could exempt their kids from. The point is to promote a pervasive and systematic approach to reducing prejudice in all areas. The methods proposed by the Rainbow curriculum apply as much to everyday classroom practice and unanticipated situations as they do to a particular set of lessons.

More fundamentally, the issue is one of how to make and carry out democratic education policy. Every parent should have a right to participate in the making of public school policy in a meaningful way. But individual parents don’t have a right to unilaterally impose their own version of it on teachers and schools. Should prejudiced parents, as matter of school policy, be able to pull their kids out of black history programs? Should anti-Semitic parents be able to avoid lessons on the Holocaust?

Parents have a right to teach their beliefs to their children, but public school is where kids are taught what society thinks of itself. What that vision should be continues to be a matter of sharp struggle, but it should remain a collective, rather than an individual process. Students should be exposed to values and norms of behavior that presumably give everyone a stake in making social institutions work democratically. In the process, hopefully they will learn mutual respect and the critical skills needed to make their own judgments about what both their schools and their parents tell them.

There’s also another issue: “choice.” Extending the logic of opt-outs, some have seized on the Rainbow controversy as yet another argument for a system of public school “choice.” The Wall Street Journal asserted that the entire Rainbow controversy “all adds up to more fuel for the burgeoning school-choice movement.” In the New York Times, Richard Vigilante of the Center for Social Thought wrote that “choice” is “a successful and honorable way to avoid the culture wars that threaten our schools…In a true school choice program Heather has Two Mommies…would be read by children whose parents chose the schools that accepted the textbook. Overnight, the fight over the Rainbow Curriculum, like all such fights for control over ‘the system’ would become moot.”

The choice scenario, here applied to curriculum issues, envisions an educational market system that would remain “public” only in its provision of public funds to individual schools. Such a system could be quite friendly to pockets of educational privilege and prejudice. Allowing parents or students to escape any contact with democratically achieved guidelines on social policy or racial and cultural differences is, in fact, not democratic at all. Such proposals reinforce suspicions that the real goal of “choice” plans is to undermine public education as a democratic social institution and to preserve class and racial inequalities.

In this connection, it’s worth noting that the focus on same sex families in the campaign against Children of the Rainbow masks a deeper resistance to other forms of multiculturalism. While progressive educators are trying to expand multicultural education to include real recognition of diversity and programs that actively fight bias, others want to keep it confined to superficial versions of melting pot myths and exclude whole categories of people. “Multiculturalism does not include lifestyles,” said one district board member, as if it applied only to those willing to adopt conventional modes of behavior and belief. Similarly, Michael Petrides, a member of the Central Board from Staten Island, complained that “educators are now picking off voting blocs like politicians, to make sure voting blocs are represented in the curriculum. We are dissecting everything into what is special and different, rather than what we have in common.”

Such claims — which are wildly exaggerated — reflect the discomfort historically privileged groups feel in the face of demands for inclusion and more democratic versions of curriculum. In most schools, multiculturalism hasn’t even begun to go beyond food festivals and superficial celebrations of holidays. It hasn’t begun to explain why some “differences” translate into access to wealth and power, while others become a source of discrimination and injustice. Opponents want to limit multicultural initiatives before they develop into more substantive pluralist and anti-racist efforts. Attacking tolerance for gay families is a way of attacking multicultural education at its perceived weakest link.

What role for parents?

With the Board and much of the city deeply divided following Fernandez’s ouster, the search for a replacement is likely to be long and difficult. In fact, the one point of broad agreement seems to be that the current structure is unworkable. As it now stands, the Mayor appoints two of the seven Central Board members, and the five borough presidents each appoint one. This arrangement produces a body with little coherence or accountability.

Norm Fruchter argues, “Long term, there’s a major problem with governance in NYC schools. And it’s not only governance, but bureaucratic layers that impede anything real happening at the school level.”

In the short run, however, the next battle will focus on local school board elections set for this spring. Churches and conservative groups are expected to run an unprecedented number of candidates using the AIDS, condom, and curriculum controversies as the basis of their campaigns. PACE, along with other groups, is trying to organize slates of progressive candidates that respond not only with forthright support for multicultural inclusion, but also with a comprehensive program for school change.

Yet while the elections may be hotly contested, they’re not likely to resolve much. In the final analysis, the deeper issue raised by the struggle over Children of the Rainbow is what role the majority of public school parents will play in efforts to remake an educational system that is failing their children.

In last fall’s general elections, there was a concerted national campaign by far-right groups to target parents and win school board seats (see story page 9). Aided by homophobia and racial tension, the forces of the right are trying to mobilize parents, including large numbers of Latinos, Asians, and African Americans, behind conservative “family values” and racial-cultural backlash. How to counter this conservative campaign and enlist parents in campaigns for more democratic schooling remains the unfinished lesson of the Rainbow curriculum.