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THE QUALITY of the education a child in New York State receives depends on "the accident of whether he lives in a property-rich or a property-poor district."

That observation from the 1982 Rubin Commission is just as true today -- as officials ponder a more recent commission'sfindings -- as it was in 1982. And it was true two decades ago when yet another commission recommended a complete overhaul of the state's system for funding public education. The results of the work of the three separate reform panels over two decades? Not much.

Nor does it appear that anything will be done this year. The State Legislature will wind up the session any day now and hightail it out of Albany. It will leave the state's method of funding public schools a hodgepodge of confusing formulas that do a poor job of ensuring each student is prepared to contribute to the work force and society.

Everyone recognizes the problem, as evidenced by the creation of the most recent panel -- the Salerno Commission -- and the unanimous adoption of its package of recommendations by the panel's members, who included both Republicans and Democrats.

But politics and the well-entrenched view that school funding is just another pork-barrel appropriation -- and a highly visible one at that -- make inequitable school funding an intractable problem.

Contributing to the inaction is a lack of focus by state officials, the media and the public on the funding disparity itself while attention is focused on peripheral issues.

Few people in Western New York realize that the Bedford schools in Westchester County annually spend more than $11,500 per student, or that the Port Jefferson schools in Suffolk County spend more than $10,000 per student, according to the state's latest tabulation. That is nearly twice as much as the $5,000 to $6,000 most districts in Erie County spend.

Pouring money on students is no guarantee of commensurate success -- students in Amherst and Williamsville do as well or better when it comes to earning Regents diplomas or entering college as those in the rich downstate districts. But such lavish spending in some districts seriously undermines the state's goal of equitable spending and achievement when it comes at the expense of other districts that do need help much more.

The state-created Fleischmann Commission recognized the problem in 1972 when it issued a three-volume report calling for total state funding of schools to eliminate such disparities and assure that "each student is provided equal educational opportunity." It was a nice idea, but nothing came of it.

The issue was revived in the late 1970s when several districts with low property values sued the state because they couldn't fund an adequate education for their students.

Four large cities -- including Buffalo -- later joined the suit, arguing that the problems of educating disadvantaged urban youngsters also were not adequately accounted for in the state aid formula.

The Rubin Commission was formed and spent four years coming up with recommended changes in case the state lost the suit. Unfortunately, the state won. The Legislature continued doing business as usual, the disparities persisted, and another report gathered dust.

Arguments over state aid in 1988 led to the formation of yet another study group, this one headed by New York Telephone president and chief executive officer Frederick Salerno. It, too, called for changes, including consideration of a comprehensive "poverty factor" in a basic portion of the aid formula to channel more help to districts with high concentrations of at-risk students.

It's a rational concept that recognizes the greater needs such students bring to the classroom.

It also recognizes the state's interest in meeting those needs in school rather than later in the social service line, the unemployment line or the police line-up.

But two years have passed, and though Gov. Cuomo tried to incorporate some of the Salerno panel's recommendations in the school aid package completed this spring, little real reform has been accomplished.

Three panels; three reports; no reform. It is clearly time for change. The status quo is creating what Education Commissioner Thomas Sobol warns are "two contrasting school systems, one largely surburban, white, affluent and successful; and the other largely urban, of color, poor and failing."

We can't afford to keep funding a situation like that.

Tomorrow: How the funding formula works -- or doesn't work.

note; graphic Is this fair?

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