New York's Schools

PARENTS will surely be as relieved as their youngsters, and probably more so, when New York City schools officially open Sept. 20. This assumes that the nation's largest school system - with more than 1,000 schools, 75,000 teachers, and 1 million students - doesn't announce another delay. It recently moved the starting date up from Sept. 9, following concerns over asbestos hazards in many school buildings.

Unfortunately, the turmoil over the asbestos cleanup - undertaken after disclosures that prior asbestos-related inspections over a four-year period were slipshod and perhaps fraudulent - mirrors the deeper turmoil that has surrounded New York schools in recent years.

As one fresh-faced youngster told a local television reporter: ``I just want to get back to school; I love school.'' Her problem, and the Big Apple's challenge, is that the city's school system has become ensnared in a bitter struggle between rival political factions, as well as the tug and pull of diverse ideological groups attempting to impose their agendas on the system.

In August, New York's Board of Education selected a new chancellor, Ramon Cortines, former superintendent of San Francisco schools.

Mr. Cortines won on a 4-to-3 vote. The majority (representing Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island) was instrumental earlier this year in ousting school Chancellor Joseph Fernandez. The board majority repeatedly had clashed with Mr. Fernandez over his plans to offer students a multicultural curriculum, including gay rights, and distribution of condoms in public high schools. The three-member minority, who had supported Fernandez, represents liberal Manhattan as well as Mayor David Dinkins.

Cortines, a Hispanic, says he favors stressing ``basics,'' such as classroom performance and public safety, over the social agenda that brought down his predecessor.

That's a step in the right direction. But Cortines will have to hold out an olive branch to Mayor Dinkins, who opposed Cortines, as well as to public-interest groups seeking further school reform, including continued decentralization.

New York's school children deserve the best education possible -

in schools not only asbestos and crime-free, but free of political meddling.

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