Editorials

George Pataki: Too Little, Too Late

It’s hard to remember now, but once upon a time, George E. Pataki ran for Governor in 1994 on a platform that promised big changes in the way Albany goes about the people’s business.

Now, in the final year of his unmemorable three terms, Mr. Pataki is playing political hardball with the State Legislature. To what end? Well, nobody really knows. He infuriated lawmakers by vetoing $2.9 billion in spending in the state budget, although he’s now offering to restore some of that spending to avoid a bloody election-year confrontation with the Assembly and the State Senate.

Mr. Pataki is not wrong to say that there is a great deal of wasteful spending in the state’s $112.8 billion budget. The question is: Why is he taking this action now, and when exactly did he figure out that Albany’s finances are a mess?

Mr. Pataki defeated Mario Cuomo in 1994 by talking the conservative talk on taxes and spending. He correctly noted that Albany was a dysfunctional place where the public welfare is often beside the point, a place where a few men in a room make decisions involving billions of dollars. He defeated Mr. Cuomo, the symbol of the status quo. And then he promptly changed nothing.

Government spending has gone through the roof under Mr. Pataki. New York’s state and local governments, and the vast array of public authorities, are in debt to the tune of an astonishing $227 billion, according to the Citizens Budget Commission. Of that figure, public authorities—which operate beyond the control of taxpayers—accounted for $166 billion in borrowing. Under Mr. Pataki, New York has continued to evade taxpayer approval for new debt. And with good reason: Voters would never approve the sort of outrageous borrowing that has characterized the Pataki years. In fact, they have voted in favor of only $4 billion in state-supported borrowing (as opposed to debt incurred by the public authorities and local governments) in recent years. But state-supported debt, which is repaid through tax dollars, accounts for $45 billion.

The Citizens Budget Commission has called for an amendment to the State Constitution that would require voter approval for all state borrowing. If Mr. Pataki had really been a reformer, such a measure would not be necessary.

The Governor himself has been guilty of playing fast and loose with the public treasury, to the benefit of the politically powerful health-care workers’ union, among others. And he has looked the other way as Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have handed out tens of millions of dollars in so-called “members’ items”—pure, unadulterated pork—for distribution by local legislators. Small wonder New York’s political arteries are clogged.

Mr. Pataki has been a distant figure in state politics since his election. He has demonstrated little in the way of leadership, vision or innovation. His failures have been many, but surely the biggest and most tragic has been his inability to rebuild Ground Zero.

Let’s remember that his two re-election campaigns produced less-than-impressive results over less-than-impressive opponents. New Yorkers have hardly embraced the man. They have not rallied behind him—and why would they?

And now he thinks he’s running for President.

It’s hard to imagine a more ridiculous scenario. One of Mr. Pataki’s few remaining good points—his moderation and tolerance on social and cultural issues—would seem to make him a non-starter in any Republican Presidential contest. If he had compiled a sound record on budget cutting, government efficiency and political reform, well, perhaps that message could drown out his views on gay rights and abortion.

But Mr. Pataki doesn’t have that kind of record. He will bring to the Presidential campaign what he has brought to New York’s political culture.

Nothing.

Bloomberg Tempts Teachers

Part of New York’s City’s crisis in public education is the nation’s crisis—namely, a significant lack of teachers specializing in math and the sciences. For example, almost 60 percent of American eighth graders are taught math by teachers who did not major in math or have the certification to teach it. As a result, American middle- and high-school students are left straggling behind kids from other developed nations.

Rather than wait for that gap to widen into an unbridgeable abyss, the Bloomberg administration is offering housing subsidies of up to $14,600 to lure math, science and special-education teachers to work in the city’s most troubled schools. The annual price tag of about $1.5 million is a smart investment. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten deserve praise for working together to make this happen.

New Yorkers know that real estate is a daunting challenge when it comes to living well in the city. Many prospective teachers cannot afford to enter such a premium-priced housing market on an average salary of about $60,000, particularly when they can earn as much, or more, teaching in a leafy suburb like Greenwich or Scarsdale, where students are self-motivated and brimming with ambition. And so the city’s new program will give as much as $5,000 to new teachers to help with moving expenses, down payments and brokers’ fees. That’s followed by a $400 monthly housing subsidy for two years. In return, the teachers agree to stay in their positions for a minimum of three years.

To fill vacancies due to attrition and retirement for the coming school year in September, the city needs to hire 800 math teachers, 450 science teachers and 1,300 special-education teachers. The subsidy program won’t be able to meet all of those needs right away, but it’s expected to have 100 extra teachers on board by autumn.

Because the competition around the country for math and science teachers is so fierce, the Bloomberg administration is taking its pitch on the road in recruitment drives throughout our country. Fortunately, the city is a pretty easy sell these days: the lowest crime rate of any large American city, the finest theater and art to be found anywhere, and a community of the world’s best and brightest scholars.

Edward R. Murrow’s Chess Champs

Edward R. Murrow High School is a public high school in Brooklyn that has developed a reputation for high-quality students who always bring honor to the school. Last week, for the third year in a row, the school’s chess team captured the 2006 National High School Chess Championships, held in Milwaukee. This is the school’s sixth national title since 1992— a credit to longtime coach Eliot Weiss and the current senior captain, Ilya Kotlyanskiy.

The school is a paragon of public education. Despite having 3,800 students, Murrow boasts an 86 percent graduation rate, with graduates going on to attend Yale, Princeton, Harvard, M.I.T., New York University and Columbia. Murrow students turn up regularly as finalists or semifinalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. The student body is ethnically diverse and takes advantage of vibrant theater, art and music departments. All students meet with a guidance counselor four times a year and are given a large amount of freedom to design their own education program.

More and more, chess is becoming a sport of champions in New York. Another example would be the Harlem Chess Center, an after-school program run by the highly regarded nonprofit Harlem Educational Activities Fund. The chess center’s team, the Dark Knights, has also won six national championships.

The French philosopher Pascal once said, “Chess is the gymnasium of the mind.” We congratulate the Murrow chess team for excelling at this sport of cerebral athletes.