The Mayor and the Board of Ed

In one of the most pointed passages of his inaugural address, Mike Bloomberg declared that he intends to do what Rudolph Giuliani dreamed of doing: dismantle the Board of Education and assume control of the city’s public-school system himself. New York parents who cringe at the thought of sending their children to the city’s public schools, or who live on the financial edge in order to afford private-school tuition, are a receptive crowd when it comes to a Mayor promising to clean up the schools if only he’s given the chance. Look at what Mr. Giuliani did with crime, after all. But the temptation to hand the schools over to the Mayor–and a chancellor appointed by that Mayor–must be considered in the cold light of the risks involved.

There is one very significant advantage to Mayoral control of the schools, and that involves fiscal responsibility. Of the current seven members of the Board of Ed, only two are appointed by the Mayor. The other five are lobbied hard by the local elected officials who appointed them, and who are looking for perks for their constituents. The result is that money is often wasted on placating politicians rather than spent on educating students. A direct line of accountability from the multibillion-dollar education budget to the Mayor’s office would be a bracing exercise in openness. Any Mayor who fiddled with that money would rightly be taken to task by voters. There would be no Board of Ed to blame, no independent chancellor to assail in the press.

The downside of putting the Mayor and a hand-picked chancellor in charge of the schools is that one educational philosophy–the Mayor’s–would hold sway over the entire system. Theoretically, having an independent Board of Ed allows new ideas to eventually work their way into the classroom. It may be true that, as currently constituted, the board operates less as a bastion of bold thinking and more as a group of unruly students. But having a one-Mayor, one-vote education policy runs the risk of inhibiting useful dissent. Friction, after all, can bring good results. Recall that Mr. Giuliani vociferously opposed the appointment of Harold Levy as schools chancellor in 2000. The board gave him the job, and Mr. Levy has done outstanding work.

The State Legislature, along with Governor George Pataki, would have to sign off on any change in the city’s education structure. Mr. Pataki likes the idea of doing away with the board. Members of the Assembly, following the lead of Speaker Sheldon Silver, disagree. Mr. Silver has created a panel of assemblymen, educators and businesspeople to study the issue of Mayoral control over schools and report its findings shortly.

There are compelling arguments to be made on both sides, but one inarguable fact is that the city’s 1.1 million public-school students deserve what Mayor Bloomberg has promised: “a school system that works for all our children.” If he succeeds where all Mayors before him have failed and makes good on that promise, he stands a good chance of joining Mr. Giuliani, Fiorella La Guardia and a handful of others as a Mayor who left the city profoundly changed for the better.

Robert Torricelli: Cleared But Not clean

Now that outgoing U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White has ended her criminal investigation of New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli without seeking an indictment, the Senator is beaming like a man reborn, declaring, “I plan to put this entire matter behind me.” But the public record is rife with evidence of Mr. Torricelli’s selfish, sleazy behavior as a U.S. Senator, and being cleared of charges by a prosecutor will do little to remove the stench that clings to him. Ms. White’s office has now turned the matter over to the six members of the Senate Ethics Committee. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the committee will offer any true appraisal of Mr. Torricelli: He is up for re-election in November, and the committee’s three Democrats are wary of doing anything to hurt his chances.

The details of the case against Mr. Torricelli involve his allegedly taking lavish, unreported gifts–Italian suits, a Rolex watch, Tiffany cufflinks, an Oriental rug, a large-screen TV–and tens of thousands of dollars in cash from a Korean businessman named David Chang. In return, the Senator lobbied Korean government officials to look favorably on Mr. Chang’s efforts to buy a $1.5 billion insurance company. So revolting were Mr. Torricelli’s actions that the United States ambassador was forced to apologize for him.

Mr. Torricelli has never bothered much with ethical nuances. Past revelations include his making over 100 stock trades in 1999, in which he earned $135,000 in capital gains. Many of the trades were I.P.O.’s, where favorable treatment for preferred customers is rampant. Then there were the six people who pled guilty to making illegal donations to his 1996 campaign. And who can forget his vocal support for an Iranian group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which the State Department considers a terrorist organization? The group’s sympathizers have donated over $100,000 to Mr. Torricelli, by one estimate.

Robert Torricelli shames his fellow Senators by his presence in that chamber. That the people of New Jersey appear willing to hand him an easy re-election this fall simply paves the way for his next transgression.

High-School Dropouts Oversee Your Air Safety

It’s pretty clear that the nation’s airports are the front lines of the war on terrorism. Why, then, does Washington seem content to leave such critical work in the hands of unqualified people?

Just as our Special Operations forces in Afghanistan are expertly trained and highly motivated, our airport-security personnel ought to be top-notch. Their jobs are vital to the national interest and the safety of millions of airline passengers. Instead, the Federal Aviation Administration is intent on dumbing down the nation’s airport security, even after its failures have become so tragically apparent. The F.A.A. is refusing to require that security personnel have high-school diplomas, a standard almost every other important industry maintains. The F.A.A. is saying that the least-qualified, least-motivated people are good enough for airport security. Does that restore your confidence in America’s home-front war on terrorism?

Senator Charles Schumer has rightly criticized the F.A.A. for this outrageous and dangerous move. “Not requiring the highest possible standards and qualifications for airline-security workers sends exactly the wrong message,” Mr. Schumer said.

The F.A.A.’s argument? That keeping the bar low will allow 7,000 screeners to retain their jobs under a plan to federalize airport security. In other words, the F.A.A. places more importance on making it safe for underqualified people to keep their jobs than it does on making it safe for Americans to get aboard a plane. With all due respect to those screeners, it is sheer folly to proceed as if Sept. 11 never happened, and to leave life-or-death decisions in the hands of people who did not have the intelligence or discipline to finish high school.

Senator Schumer has sounded the right note of alarm. Now we need to see action. We already know the consequences of complacency.