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Harold Levy's Class War

What Levy says he wants most of all is to get beyond the hurdle of ideology. Vouchers are illegal in New York State, he says, so why bother talking about them? A little dabbling in privatization, he says, never hurt anybody, right? Instead, he'd rather be an apolitical ambassador for the schools. This, he suggests, might explain some of his impulsive, loftier behavior: Levy has garnered headlines for sending Wallace Stevens poems to board members and coaxing Isaac Stern into teaching violin to his 43 superintendents. He drops references to thinkers as disparate as Stephen L. Carter and Adam Smith. Once, he used The Praise of Folly as the title for a Regents district report. "One or two people got the Erasmus reference," he told me, beaming. Tall with a regal, half-bare cranium and scholarly wire-rimmed glasses, he opens speeches with sprawling, idealistic principles that no one can argue with. "Our teachers are the vessels through which we convey civilization," he told a teachers' group in April . . . and a graduating class of certified teachers in June. The push for profundity is entirely intentional.

Of course, this doesn't mean he lacks an agenda. Take the United Federation of Teachers negotiation. While Levy has vowed to fight for teacher raises, he's also convinced that if he can change the contract to streamline the arbitration process -- the way in which the union defends its members from dismissal -- incompetent teachers will no longer have the protections they have now. It's a typical Levy end run: Praise teachers while changing the fine print to weaken their ability to protect the bad ones.

As above-the-fray as he tries to be, Levy is short-fused about attempts to get in his way. Last month, Richard Mills, the state education commissioner, sued Levy for not steering certified teachers to the system's weakest schools. Levy was outraged enough to call Mills, a friend, and yell at him -- and then broker a compromise before the school year started. The settlement requires him to have an all-certified teaching staff by 2003, something he insists just isn't possible without attracting subpar teachers; he points out that already, almost a third of the city's teachers flunked the certification exam the first time out.

The silver lining in this situation is alternative teacher recruitment, a Levy-inspired outreach program that netted 330 new teachers this summer. They're motivated and talented: 96 percent of them passed the certification test with just a month of preparation. The fact that the state wanted to steer these new people to the very worst schools burns Levy up -- but the program itself has promise. "That told me we were really onto something," Levy says. "I want to get people in the system who will ace that test -- who will bring a certain intellectual capacity to the job."

But for such a program to work, Levy must become even more of a Pied Piper for the schools than he is already. The thankless task gets even tougher. And Levy's smile widens.

"My reaction was, 'who in their right mind would take such a terrible job?' " Pat Sapinsley remembers. It was the first week of January, the kids were in bed, and she and her husband were doing the dishes in their Riverside Drive apartment when the husband told the wife he wanted to be schools chancellor.

"I was shocked that he would even consider it," says Sapinsley, who had put her own career as an architect on hold to raise the couple's two children. "I was concerned that we would never see him. I was concerned, given the political climate in the city, how difficult a job it could be." Only when she started detailing her fears did she realize how badly he wanted the job. "He said, kind of quietly, 'Did it ever occur to you that I might enjoy it?' "

A son of Jewish war refugees, Harold Oscar Levy grew up with a Holocaust-tinged worldview and an immigrant striver's mentality. He had the additional burden of being his parents' only surviving child. Arriving from Germany in 1939, they had settled in Washington Heights and had a daughter who suffered from nephritis, a kidney disease that left her unable to walk. She spent several years in the hospital before dying in 1951; Harold was born a year later. The sister Levy never knew was an invalid, and for that reason was set apart from the other children in school. "My mother," Levy says, "has less than tender memories of the New York City Board of Education's treatment of that child."

He made his first political connection without even knowing it. Levy's father owned the Kronel Thrift Store on West Fordham Road in the Bronx, a hardware store partly supplied by a wholesaling business run by Sheldon Silver's family. Harold attended a yeshiva kindergarten on 187th Street in Manhattan, but before the boy entered P.S. 189, his family returned to Germany seeking reparations, and he had a six-month sojourn at a nunnery kindergarten, where he remembers getting "more than my share" of corporal punishment. "I mean, on the whole, it was actually a very good experience," he says now, "because I learned to speak German."

He jumped from Junior High School 52 to Bronx Science, and then to Cornell's Industrial and Labor Relations school, where he was in the top of his class. It was there that he first read Utopia and Erasmus's The Praise of Folly, in a great-books class conducted by Milton Konvitz, an assistant general council of the NAACP legal-defense fund and scholar who holds honorary degrees from the three major Jewish seminaries. "I can only hope to aspire to little snippets of what he does in first gear," Levy says. "He taught me how to be a reflective person -- how to be a mensch."

The mentorship evolved into a 25-year correspondence that continues today. "Harold loves to write," Sapinsley explains, "and by keeping up a correspondence with someone who truly is a nineteenth-century figure, he gets to write these long, florid letters." Konvitz, now 92, speaking from his home in Oakhurst, New Jersey, describes his old pupil as a polymath. "He picks up all sorts of things," he says. "One of the things he wrote me about recently is that he read Oliver Wendell Holmes's correspondence with Harold Laski. He wants to do something meaningful with his life -- something he would be able to justify philosophically."

After a year at Oxford, Levy chose a well-traveled road: Cornell Law School, a federal clerkship in Buffalo (and work on a school-desegregation case), a job in the civil-rights division of the Department of Justice, and finally corporate law. It was as a commercial litigator for Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom that he started seeking out pro bono work, and before long he found himself in the outer reaches of the bureaucratic galaxy -- the audit-advisory committee of the high-school division of the Board of Education.

It was a morning-a-month commitment that Levy remembers as vaguely stultifying stuff -- reviewing how much is spent for textbooks, repairs, and the like -- until he suggested that the auditors and the people they audited show up at the same meetings and face one another. A bureaucratic snore turned into a night at the fights. "Unbeknownst to me, the people in these meetings loved it," Levy says. "The auditors finally got somebody to listen to them -- and the people being audited got to stick it to those cockamamie auditors. And for eighteen months, I got tutorials on the idiocy that goes on in this system -- $100,000 in computers, lost with a shrug of the shoulders; somebody records books missing because they were filed slightly the wrong way."

A phone call from Ray Cortines in 1995 pulled Levy deeper into the system. Levy recalls Cortines's telling him that "his people" had said Levy was the right man to head up a new commission on school facilities. Levy stacked the roster with a mix of the city's master builders and power brokers -- Jack Rudin, former Nelson Rockefeller adviser Alton Marshall, City College president Yolanda Moses, and former city finance commissioner Anthony Shorris. "He didn't know a face brick from a teakettle, but he learned," says Rudin. From the beginning, though, Levy knew how to impress the Albany staff, holding meetings in the posh Salomon Brothers conference room. People in the meetings remember never having seen anything like it before.

When the commission drew its conclusion that the schools needed $11 billion in investment, Levy worried that the report would die the slow death of most Albany committee reports -- so he directed the media to a class being held in a bathroom. The images endured. "There was a Regents hearing on the report, and everybody was looking for a site for the hearing," remembers Elaine Frazier, Silver's aide at the time. "And Harold wanted to have the hearing on the top floor in one of the school buildings because it was unsafe. That was Harold O. Levy."