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EASY FIXES FOR BETTER SCHOOLS; BUT WILL ALBANY MAKE CHANGES IN AID SYSTEM?

THE CURRENT school aid formula in New York State is described as "equalizing" because it tries to make state aid inversely proportional to a district's wealth. But why undermine that ideal by allowingloopholes that dilute the formula's effect? If the State Legislature is really looking for ways to rechannel money to districts that need it most, there are several things it should do immediately:

Eliminate the flat grant: Or at least reduce this provision that gives each district at least $360 per pupil no matter how wealthy the district is. This is a purely political accommodation rationalized as maintaining the partnership between the state and local district.

When money is so scarce that reform is stymied, does it make sense to send it to those areas that otherwise would not qualify? Rubin Commission members did not think so in 1982. It's a measure of the political compromise the more recent Salerno Commission tried to reach that it argued for keeping a minimum flat grant, without saying what the amount should be. Rubin was right: It should go, and the money should be put to better use.

Get rid of "save harmless": This curiosity protects districts from any aid loss stemming from enrollment declines or increases in wealth. There are other ways to mitigate the effects of rapid enrollment declines. As a principle, "save harmless" is at odds with getting the most out of the state's money.

Don't rely solely on attendance: Consider enrollment as well when figuring a district's population. Urban districts that experience more truancy get hurt by the current formula. Considering both enrollment and attendance would maintain the incentive for schools to try to get kids to show up while recognizing socioeconomic differences.

Gov. Cuomo proposed a partial use of enrollment in the formula this year. It was not as much as the large-city districts wanted, but even the governor's proposal went nowhere in the Legislature. The lawmakers should wake up to reality.

Stop aid diversion: The state should implement some type of "maintenance of effort" provision to stop City Halls from siphoning educational aid from the five large-city districts that are dependent on city governments for funding.

Buffalo is infamous in Albany as the worst offender. The Griffin administration's reputation made it almost impossible for legislators from this area to argue for more school aid this year. As it is, there is still a question about $3.5 million the city supplied the schools last year which was not included in this year's budget.

State action would prevent such shenanigans year after year and stop students in all five cities from getting shortchanged by myopic local politicians.

Stop penalizing progress: The state now has disincentives for improvement, such as current formula provisions that cut aid to underachieving students once those students begin to do better.

More fundamental -- and more controversial -- would be regional taxing systems or the regional pooling of industrial and commercial property for taxing purposes. This kind of measure would help reduce the effects of disparities in wealth from one district to the next. But of course, that's what state aid itself is supposed to do. And some would argue that an area willing to put up with a shopping mall or power plant deserves to reap most of the benefits.

It's a long-term issue the Salerno Commission recommended looking into. But little has happened with even the simplest of the panel's proposals, so the prospects for action on such complex measures is hardly bright.

Tomorrow: Pressing for change.

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