Los Angeles school Superintendent Roy Romer recently described his effort to rescue the nation’s second largest system this way: “It’s like jumping off the cliff in Acapulco – you either hit the rocks or you hit the water. We’re committed to the journey.”

Now, 18 months into the job, New York City schools Chancellor Harold Levy is starting to betray a similar mix of ideals and fatalism. For example, he didn’t bother to mince words this week as he described a city budget that leaves the system about $120 million lighter than last year. Levy is particularly incensed over $20 million that has failed to materialize for improvements in bilingual education.

“We’re letting this train ride down the track and pretending no one sees it,” he said. “I’m angry we haven’t adequately addressed the issue of what do we do with children who don’t speak English and come to our shores with the expectation they will get a fair education.”

He has a point. Not only has the city failed its school children, so has Albany. Levy is expecting $50 million in state money for the bilingual program, money he has yet to see because the Legislature is unable to pass a budget on time.

Meanwhile, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has already run off two chancellors, sneers at Levy’s complaints. He says that if Levy can’t make ends meet on $12 billion a year, maybe City Hall should help him find some ways.

This is disingenuous. While $12 billion may sound like a lot, the city has 1.1 million pupils, many with special needs; 78,100 teachers; and 1,189 schools. The system will not improve without much stronger financial support. At last glance, schools in neighboring Nassau County were spending an average of $12,841 per pupil, in Suffolk, $12,081 – and in the city, $8,934.

A better bilingual program is crucial if city pupils are to excel. Fifteen percent can’t speak English proficiently. The current program uses far too many uncertified teachers. If the mayor wants to move bilingual pupils into the mainstream faster, he must cough up the cash.

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