July 1, 2002

The 'Iota' Standard


It is both perverse and cruel of state officials to raise the academic requirements for public school students in New York City while fighting furiously against efforts to provide the resources that the students need to reach those higher standards.

Gov. George Pataki has ascended to stunning new heights of hypocrisy on this matter. Three years ago, when officials in school districts around the state were expressing concern about tougher high school graduation requirements being imposed by the State Board of Regents, Mr. Pataki insisted, "We should not back down one iota from our efforts to raise students' performance standards."

Well, the state has not backed down. Tougher standards are the rule — in high schools, middle schools and grammar schools. But last year, when a court found that the State of New York had failed in its constitutional obligation to provide "a sound, basic education" for New York City children, the governor skidded into a U-turn. He suddenly became less worried about academic standards and much more worried about the money that might be required to really educate the city's children.

So he ordered an appeal of the ruling handed down in January 2001 by Justice Leland DeGrasse of State Supreme Court. Justice DeGrasse had determined "that the education provided New York City students is so deficient that it falls below the constitutional floor set by the education article of the New York State Constitution."

Justice DeGrasse said the state had shortchanged city schools for decades. He ordered state officials to develop a system to help the city relieve overcrowding, reduce class size, hire more qualified teachers, improve the physical condition of the schools, and acquire new books, computers and supplies.

"The majority of the city's public school students leave high school unprepared for more than low-paying work, unprepared for college and unprepared for the duties placed upon them by a democratic society," Justice DeGrasse wrote. "The schools have broken a covenant with students, and with society."

You would think that a governor so concerned about standards would have applauded Justice DeGrasse's ruling. But Governor Pataki was in no mood to cheer. It's one thing to raise standards for schoolchildren. But when it comes to the responsibility of public officials, the lowest of standards will do.

Last week the governor got what he wanted. The appeal that he ordered was successful. The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court overturned Justice DeGrasse's ruling and said the state does not have to do much when it comes to the education of public school children. In fact, it doesn't have to do any more than it's doing now.

The court ruled that providing kids with about an eighth grade education was sufficient. If the kids are capable of flipping burgers or running messages, that's good enough.

With Governor Pataki leading the way, the state has embraced an educational standard that is so low as to be embarrassing.

This has not bothered the governor. Mr. Pataki let it be known that he was quite "pleased" with the Appellate Division ruling. The man who insisted that we "not back down one iota" on student standards has given the back of his hand to the students who have to struggle to meet those standards. After setting the bar quite high for the children, he turned around and set it embarrassingly low for himself.

Rudy Crew, a former New York City schools chancellor, told me of a conversation he had with Governor Pataki a few years ago about tougher standards and plans to end social promotions in the city. Mr. Crew said he asked the governor, "Why not get ahead of the curve" and start funding what Mr. Crew described as a genuine "assault on low-performance."

The former chancellor said that would have required extensions of the school day, additional training of teachers and principals, technological upgrades a number of initiatives that the chancellor felt were essential and had already proved to be effective.

"This fell completely off the table," Mr. Crew said. The governor never really responded in a major way. The initiatives were seen as too expensive.

So we're left with a system that is fine for turning out bicycle messengers, and absolutely terrific at preparing kids for Rikers Island. It's great to have a governor that cares about standards.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company