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GIVEN THE long-accepted correlation between poverty and lack of success in school -- and, therefore, later in life -- it might seem axiomatic that states would do all they could to make sure students in poorer school systems get at least as good an education as those in wealthierdistricts. Most state officials undoubtedly would give lip service to that ideal. But the test of their commitment is how rapidly they are willing to move, and most of the movement so far has been to dodge the issue.

There are several steps New York could take to narrow the gap between the two distinct school systems -- one wealthy and successful, the other poor and failing -- that education commissioner Thomas Sobol has identified. Two of the most important go to the very heart of how aid is distributed.

Consider a poverty factor

The first thing the state should do is include a comprehensive poverty factor in calculating the combined wealth ratio that is a key component of the general aid formula.

The formula now considers the value of the property in a district and the income levels of the district's residents in determining how wealthy a district is, and thus how much aid it deserves. The number of students with special needs is a small factor in the formula, but a more comprehensive measure is needed for districts that have large concentrations of such pupils and, therefore, larger costs.

The poverty factor could be based on such measures as the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches (roughly 75 percent of Buffalo's students fall into that category), the number of students from families receiving public assistance, the number of students living in poverty or any of the other standard measures of socioeconomic status. Gov. Cuomo this year tried to incorporate a poverty factor in a new supplemental program that would have combined several existing programs and raised the funding level by nearly $38 million to help at-risk students.

That effort died in the Legislature. If lawmakers are really serious about educating all the state's students for a high-tech, Information Age future, they will incorporate a poverty factor in next year's formula.

Target districts, not regions

At the same time, the state can make sure that whatever steps it takes to channel new aid are targeted only to the districts with the greatest need. That means that if a cost index is to be incorporated into the basic aid formula, as the Regents recommended and the governor tried to do this year, it should be done on a district-by-district basis, not on a regional basis.

The Regional Cost Index that the Regents and Cuomo proposed this year would have greatly aided New York City, which undoubtedly needs help. But it also would have sent money to such pockets of affluence as Westchester and Nassau counties because they are in the same standard metropolitan statistical region.

The index is supposed to make up for the higher costs experienced by districts in some areas so that a dollar of state aid buys the same amount in each district. But the regional approach would have greatly aided a few downstate counties while doing virtually nothing for Western New York or most of the rest of the state.

Cuomo has argued that poor districts within wealthy counties would have been helped by the index. But there has to be a way to target such relief to the specific districts that need it most while not lavishing scarce resources on those better able to fund their own programs.

Tomorrow: More ways to reform school funding.

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Poverty, public schools and achievement

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