The AirTrain: Just a Beginning

It’s being touted as the missing link in the city’s transportation network-the train to the plane, or, as its builders prefer to call it, the AirTrain. After decades of discussion and years of construction, the $1.9 billion project is nearly ready to begin whisking thousands of passengers via monorail from John F. Kennedy International Airport to … Jamaica, Queens. Jamaica?

Unfortunately, the AirTrain will not take passengers directly from J.F.K. into Manhattan. Instead, they will have to transfer in Jamaica, where they can pick up either the Long Island Rail Road or the subway into midtown. Similarly, outgoing passengers will have to get to Jamaica first, either by the LIRR or subway, before they can pick up the AirTrain.

This is not what the project’s advocates had in mind when they insisted, rightly, that New York needed a first-class train link to its airports. Our global competitors-London, Paris and Tokyo, among others-long ago realized the importance of such links. San Francisco recently completed a link between its airport and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. What they have in common is what the AirTrain lacks: a single-seat ride from the business district to the airport.

Without direct access to Manhattan, the AirTrain is doomed. The Port Authority, which built the system, does have a long-term plan to bring the AirTrain into Manhattan, but long-term plans have a way of becoming illusions. That simply cannot be allowed to happen to AirTrain. If the Manhattan link is not started soon, AirTrain will become a very expensive white elephant, and a public embarrassment for the Pataki administration, which pushed the project forward.

The idea behind the AirTrain is inarguable. New York needs a speedy, efficient and convenient alternative to the Van Wyck Expressway and the Belt Parkway, those highways of horror that have caused many a business traveler and tourist to miss a flight out of J.F.K. Travelers who have experienced the comfort of, say, London’s rail connections to Heathrow and Gatwick airports must wonder why they have to suffer in traffic jams when they come to New York.

The AirTrain is a step in the right direction, but it’s only a step. Port Authority officials must understand that when they cut the ribbon for the AirTrain, they are not celebrating the completion of an expensive and necessary project. Rather, they are simply marking the end of the project’s first phase.

Congratulations are not in order, because the job remains unfinished. And if it remains that way, the AirTrain will be nothing more than a promise unfulfilled.

Get All Parents Involved In School Councils

In another victory for public-school children, the city is doing away with local school boards in the city’s 32 public-school districts. The boards were part of the system’s emphasis on local control, but too often they became appendages of local political clubhouses. They became riddled with corruption and populated by egregious hacks who cared little about education.

Now, in place of the local boards, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein wants to set up parent councils, whose members would be chosen by officers of the local Parent-Teacher Associations in each district. It’s an admirable alternative to the old local boards, which were chosen in special elections that attracted turnouts of less than 5 percent. Board members didn’t have to be parents of public-school children-too often they weren’t-but Mr. Klein’s councils would be composed entirely of parents. The councils would advise the Department of Education on local matters.

The plan requires federal approval, and some critics are urging Washington to reject it because, they say, it is biased against minorities. How so? Schools with heavy minority populations tend to have low participation in Parent-Teacher Associations-some schools don’t even have a P.T.A.-while schools with white populations have flourishing P.T.A.’s. What’s more, in schools with a mixed population, white parents tend to dominate the P.T.A.’s leadership.

There is certainly a problem here, but it’s not the one the critics have identified. Why is there such low parental participation in heavily minority schools? Shouldn’t the critics be working to get more minority parents involved in P.T.A.’s instead of complaining about bias when white parents get involved? Are the critics suggesting that the white parents who are involved in mixed-population schools represent only white students or white “interests” (whatever that might mean)?

It is certainly true that many minority parents are under severe economic and family pressure. Single, working parents have very little time to spare, and find it difficult to take on the important responsibilities that come with serving as a president, secretary or treasurer of a P.T.A. in New York City.

Still, though, just as democracy depends on voter participation, the school system needs involved parents. This is especially true in underperforming schools in poor neighborhoods. The tragedy of this story is not that whites might be overrepresented in P.T.A.’s, but that struggling schools have no or minimal parental input.

Political organizations know that one way to fight voter apathy is to organize at the neighborhood level, so that local residents feel a connection to politics and local government. Similarly, advocacy groups that claim to speak for public-school students and parents should spend their time and energy recruiting members for P.T.A.’s where those organizations barely exist.

The solution is not to complain about white parents who get involved in their local schools. The solution is to get more minority parents involved.