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T HE FOUNDING Fathers were onto something when they decided that justice was too important to leave to politicians. They created a judiciary shielded in large part from politics.

Perhaps that is why states moving most swiftly toward educational funding reform-- such as New Jersey, Texas, Kentucky and Montana -- are doing so after getting a swift kick from the courts. New York State reformers tried that route and were rebuffed when the Court of Appeals ruled in 1982 that the state's constitution did not require equitable school financing across the state.

Though New York City may try another legal challenge, for the time being the issue of equal education is squarely in the lap of the politicians.

The Salerno Commission on school funding reform -- which included politicians of both parties -- reached a generalized consensus that at-risk students need more help but didn't get specific about how to give it to them.

If money is to be redirected to the districts that need it most, Albany will have to take the next step: devising concrete formulas that change the distribution of state aid.

The first question that will have to be answered is whether change requires an abundance of dollars. The Fleischmann Commission, an earlier reform panel, said in 1972 that equity probably would have to come more through "leveling up" of poor districts than "leveling down" of rich ones.

Assembly Majority Leader James Tallon -- a Salerno panel member -- believes the promise of the Salerno recommendations is that they recognize political reality and give a little to wealthy districts in order to give more to poor ones. Many others agree.

But how far can Albany afford to "level up" when budgets are tight and some school districts are spending as much as $20,000 a year per pupil and others as little as $4,800?

Given the needs of at-risk students, it just makes sense from a statewide perspective to channel new money to the districts that must educate those pupils.

The Legislature has to stop looking at school spending as just another pork-barrel allocation in which every politician must get something.

Tallon, the assembly leader, notes with some justification that politicians, the media and the public all focus on state aid each
spring, though that is only one part of the picture. The more important number is total spending per pupil, and no one focuses on that when trying to figure out why urban youngsters score poorly in comparison with their wealthy suburban counterparts.

A concerted effort by superintendents, school board members and parents to repeatedly point up the per-pupil funding disparities in any discussion of school choice, test results, or anything else having to do with education can eventually sensitize Albany and the rest of the state to the problem.

Second, the impact of the problem has to be repeatedly hammered home. The story of businesses with job openings and graduates unqualified to fill them must be told and the impact of that drain on society must be emphasized.

Third, there has to be some assurance that a refocusing of aid is accompanied by increased reforms and accountability for results. Education Commissioner Thomas Sobol and the Board of Regents are moving in that direction. The Regents Action Plan has helped, but Sobol wants to push further. He has called for the development of statewide goals and objectives to be measured at the 4th, 8th and 12th grade levels.

The goals would include not only minimum competency but a mastery of material as well. Evaluations would include a sampling of a student's best work to go along with comprehensive exams. High school graduation would depend on a successful evaluation by teachers and "qualified raters," not merely on the number of courses completed.

Schools moving in the right direction would be assisted with relaxed regulations or extra funding for more innovation, while those that failed could face tighter state oversight or even removal of their school boards.

It's an approach that incorporates many ideas that have been floating around for years, combining greater local control with stricter standards of achievement. But it is handicapped from the start if at-risk students are not given the resources to help them compete with with those who start school with advantages stemming purely from social class.

Albany's -- and specifically the Legislature's -- commitment to statewide school improvement can be measured in direct proportion to its commitment to alleviating that inequity.

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