Harold O. Levy, Progressive New York City Schools Chief, Dies at 65
Posted November 28, 2018 12:20 a.m. EST
NEW YORK — Harold O. Levy, who as the chancellor of New York City’s vast public school system from 2000 to 2002 waged war on its bureaucracy, created specialized high schools and attracted thousands of new teachers by insisting on higher starting wages, died Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 65.
His wife, Pat Sapinsley, said the cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Levy had in recent years been executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the nation’s largest scholarship foundation.
The son of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, Levy grew up in New York City, attended its public schools and became a Wall Street lawyer who immersed himself privately for years in state and city education issues. While he had no experience as an educator, he had headed a 1995 city commission that castigated the city over shoddy school conditions, and as a member of the New York Board of Regents he sought more state funding for city schools.
Appointed on an interim basis by the Board of Education in January 2000, explicitly against the wishes of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Levy, a small, energetic man who arrived at his new office in a pinstriped suit carrying a pillow embroidered with “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished,” faced daunting challenges directing the nation’s largest public school system.
It was a behemoth with 1.1 million students, 84 percent of them from minority groups; 78,000 teachers whose contracts were expiring and whose ranks faced heavy retirement losses; an aging infrastructure of 1,145 schools, most of them overcrowded and decrepit, and a $13 billion budget that experts called inadequate.
Levy, a Citigroup executive unknown to the public and even to many elected officials, was a progressive Democrat and had the support of Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, and some editorial commentators, including Bob Herbert of The New York Times, who called him “a dedicated and gifted man.”
Overnight, Levy became one of the city’s most visible figures, a wealthy man who did not need the town house that went with the job and whose children attended a private school. His selection, which required a waiver from the state education commissioner for a noneducator to qualify, set off a howl from conservative politicians, who called him a rich liberal indulging his social conscience.
But Levy, an admirer of poetry and of Sir Thomas More, whose chancellorship under King Henry VIII may have been the ultimate thankless job, plunged into his new position with optimism, nervous humor and the frenzied pace of a power broker eager to shake things up. “I know the system can perform,” Levy told a news conference. “So it’s going to. Simple as that.”
Levy’s take-charge approach and zeal for education soon won a following. Editorials urged the board to keep him and to stop searching for a permanent replacement for the former chancellor, Rudy Crew, who had been ousted after fighting with Giuliani over school vouchers. Giuliani finally endorsed Levy, who became the permanent chancellor after four months on the job.
An early task was to organize the biggest summer school in city history for 300,000 failing students required to attend the sessions under a new policy that ended automatic promotion to the next grade. Beyond anyone’s reckoning, his summer school largely succeeded, with UFT help to recruit 17,000 teachers for the task. The city’s summer school is still the largest in the nation.
In his first year, Levy created his signature program — New York City Teaching Fellows, a local version of Teach for America. In its first two years, it recruited some 1,500 people from other professions, many of them African-American or Hispanic, to take crash courses and teach or mentor in city schools in exchange for tuition for a master’s degree leading to teacher certification. With a businesslike approach that emphasized accountability, efficiency and organization, Levy instituted a series of reforms. He slashed a host of regulations and converted a number of failing schools to private management. He instituted the city’s first K-12 student-information system, and created programs offering college-level instruction.
Levy also opened three new specialized schools: the High School of Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College; the High School of American Studies at Lehman College in the Bronx, and the High School for Sciences at York College in Queens. The schools opened doors for thousands of minority students who might not have otherwise had access to specialized education.
In 2002, the UFT won a new city contract, which raised entry-level teachers’ salaries sharply, to $39,000 from $31,900, and created an alternative form of certification that required far less training. As a result, thousands who might never have considered teaching in New York City — people just out of college or older people considering a career change — applied for jobs.
While Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the teachers’ union could claim credit for negotiating the contract, Levy said it was he who had “insisted that we have $39,000 and not a penny less.” After years struggling to recruit enough certified teachers to fill even half its classroom vacancies, the city hired a bounty of 8,300 applicants. Many accepted hard-to-fill positions in troubled schools.
In August 2002, Bloomberg, who had campaigned on a vow to take control of the school system, named Joel Klein to succeed Levy. In an editorial, The Times likened the school system to “a massive old battleship,” and hailed Levy for steering it “closer to the right direction."
Harold Oscar Levy was born in Manhattan on Dec. 14, 1952, to Hugh and Alice Levy. His father had been a textile merchant in Nazi Germany. After his parents escaped, his father owned a hardware store in New York. Harold grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.
He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1970, earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell University in 1974, a master’s degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford University in 1978, and a juris doctor from Cornell Law School in 1979. He was a corporate lawyer for Citigroup and several of its predecessor enterprises.
In 1986, Levy married Sapinsley, an architect who now works in the Urban Future Lab at New York University. They had two children, Hannah and Noah. They survive him. He became a liaison to community groups, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/Push Wall Street Project. In 1994, the schools chancellor, Ramon Cortines, named him to a commission on school facilities. It concluded that billions were needed to reverse years of deferred maintenance. He lobbied and raised funds for the task, and was named by the Legislature to the Board of Regents.
After his tenure as chancellor, he joined Kaplan Educational Foundation and founded its online master’s of education program. From 2010 to 2014 he was the managing director of Palm Ventures, investing in schools and educational technology. Since 2014, he had been executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which awards scholarships to thousands of low-income students.
Levy, in a commentary in The New York Times on April 8, written with education journalist Peg Tyre, acknowledged his pending death and appealed for reforms to enrich the economic diversity of college students. He proposed ending the “legacy” admissions of children of alumni, and practices like pre-application college tours, which favor wealthy families; more aid to students from middle- and working-class families, and more high school guidance counselors to help them navigate admissions processes.
“Please stop giving to your alma mater,” Levy urged wealthy donors. “If you feel you must give, try earmarking your donation for financial aid for low-income, community college students who have applied to transfer to your alma mater.” In his chancellery days, Levy kept a portrait of Sir Thomas More, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who, after a contretemps with King Henry over a point of ecclesiastical law, was beheaded in 1535. “He’s a lawyer, he’s an educator, he’s a real chancellor and he died for his principles,” Levy told New York magazine. “It’s a sort of inspirational reminder that things could be worse.”