Gates’ $51 Million Gift: A Vote for Bloomberg, Kennedy and Klein

A powerful endorsement of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to reform the beleaguered New York City public-school system came last week, when Bill Gates announced that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would give $51.2 million to create 67 small high schools in the city. It is the largest gift ever given to New York schools, and a vote of confidence in the Mayor and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. Mr. Gates would not have pledged such an amount without the quiet diplomacy of Caroline Kennedy, the city’s fund-raiser for public schools. Ms. Kennedy’s presence on the Mayor’s team lends dignity and-there’s no denying it-some useful glamour to school reform.

Mr. Gates’ foundation is channeling the gift through seven local nonprofits, which will implement the Mayor’s plan to create small high schools of less than 500 students. It’s no secret that students at such schools show better attendance and graduation rates, higher test scores and heightened morale. The Bloomberg administration started 29 small high schools this year. One nonprofit to benefit from the Gates’ gift is New Visions for Public Schools, which has opened the Bronx Academy of Letters, a “great books” high school. The school provides kids from disadvantaged backgrounds with an environment in which they don’t have to be ashamed of wanting to learn. As one 14-year-old girl told The New York Times , “The best thing is that the others don’t make fun of you when you read.”

It takes money to fix our schools, and there is simply not enough money flowing from Albany to carry out the Bloomberg administration’s ambitious goals. Philanthropic sources are essential. But many of our major locally based foundations prefer to send their funds around the world rather than do good here in their own neighborhoods. Why can’t nonprofits such as the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Corporation follow the lead of Bill and Melinda Gates? As Mr. Gates said of the gift, “That was really the way we could give back to this country and strengthen this country, and deal with what I think is its greatest challenge.”

Clarence Norman, Big Spender

Clarence Norman is a two-bit politician who represents a portion of Brooklyn in the State Assembly, a job that pays slightly more than $100,000 a year. That’s a nice salary, especially when you consider that the Assembly is a part-time job. But it’s not, say, Richard Grasso territory. Of course, like many state legislators, Mr. Norman-who also runs the hack-ridden Brooklyn Democratic Party organization-works as a lawyer on the side. Over the last few years, he has picked up another $40,000 or so annually by working for a small law firm in Manhattan.

These are more than adequate but less than overwhelming figures. How, then, did Mr. Norman come to own a stock portfolio that grew from as little as $40,000 in 1995 to as much as $4 million by 1999? Hillary Clinton and Bob Torricelli must be envious.

Mr. Norman has a simple explanation for his good fortune: He was a prudent investor. He told The New York Times that he watched CNBC and read a book by Peter Lynch, the Fidelity fund’s financial guru. Ah, well that explains everything.

Mr. Norman’s finances, and his explanations, smell worse than the Gowanus Canal on a mid-August afternoon. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes is investigating Mr. Norman, and it is a sign of the Assemblyman’s desperation that he is trying to smear the D.A., saying that Mr. Hynes is trying to advance his career. Mr. Hynes has been the D.A. for more than a decade and clearly isn’t going anywhere-his recent campaigns for State Attorney General and Governor failed miserably. If Mr. Hynes were still climbing the greasy pole, he could find a better way to get there than by investigating the Democratic boss of Kings County.

Mr. Norman’s ostentatious spending-his $80,000 Mercedes Benz, for example-and his eye-opening ventures in the stock market demand an explanation. It is beyond dispute that he was free and easy with the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s credit card, racking up $140,000 in expenses over five and a half years.

Actually, this is penny-ante stuff compared with the larger allegations. Judicial candidates have told investigators what many have whispered for a long time: that money buys judgeships in Brooklyn. To win the Democratic Party’s nomination-which generally is achieved by winning Mr. Norman’s approval-is tantamount to winning election to the bench. Former candidates have said they were told to come up with $100,000 to run their campaigns, and they were told which vendors to hire.

What’s more, the good fortune that Mr. Norman enjoyed in the stock market has been spread around to his friends. The head of the law firm that employed Mr. Norman, Ravi Batra, has received nearly a half-million dollars in court-assigned work since 1995. Before Mr. Norman joined the firm, Mr. Batra did only a few thousand dollars’ worth of work on various forms of judicial patronage.

Mr. Norman’s public and private dealings stink. Mr. Hynes’ investigation is a public service.

It Pays to Be Nice

For more than a century, ever since Darwin, many have come to believe that “survival of the fittest” was the critical requirement for the endurance of one’s genes into the next generation. And it has certainly been the credo of many of New York’s masters of the universe. But new research reveals that humans may have an innate notion of fair play, and that this sense of justice has been passed along in our genetic structure because it is a key factor in survival.

Dr. Sarah Brosnan and Dr. Frans B.M. de Waal of Emory University taught female capuchin monkeys to trade pebbles for food. But if one monkey saw that another was being given a more tasty morsel-a grape-in exchange for her pebble, that monkey would often become outraged and refuse to eat the cucumber slice she was offered, even though she was hungry. Since people are classified, like monkeys, as “social primates,” the experiment’s conclusions are intriguing.

Previously, the accepted notion was that humans were rather selfish beasts who had to be taught fair play by parents and kindergarten teachers. The new research indicates that fairness and a sense of justice are hard-wired into the human genetic makeup. Which might mean, as Dr. de Waal pointed out, that moral systems which aim to instill a sense of fairness and justice in human beings may simply be following a biological road map that’s been in place for tens of thousands of years. To put it simply, evolutionary biology would seem to be proving that nice guys do, in fact, finish first.