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Session's end obscures real achievement on school aid

I would never accuse journalists of having short attention spans. Nevertheless, the fixation on the last 24 hours -- or minutes -- has caused them to overlook a remarkable achievement in this year's legislative session.

The new formula for distributing state aid to school districts will drive added resources to high-need school districts in every part of the state. As a result, thousands of children will have access to a quality education opportunity that they otherwise would never have had. A better educated citizenry and work force will pay dividends for New York State for decades to come.

Had this signal accomplishment come in the final hours of the session, accompanied by the usual brinkmanship and the usual clashes of ego and rhetoric that make good Albany drama, Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer and the lawmakers might today find themselves hailed for their productivity rather than their futility. After all, the old school aid formula -- actually a patchwork concoction that would have made Rube Goldberg proud -- had stood for decades as a testament to Albany's inability to elevate educational need above political need.

Yet adoption of the new formula as part of the March budget process was accompanied by yawns, not drum rolls. It was proposed by Spitzer and based on a model developed by the Board of Regents. Lawmakers embraced it largely intact and with surprisingly little debate. The only real conflict, and thus news coverage, concerned a successful effort by some lawmakers to include some additional state aid for high-tax school districts.

The new formula provides a foundation grant to every district based on what a quality education should cost in a typical district. It is adjusted for geographic cost differences and for concentrations of students who come from poverty or have disabilities or are still learning English. The foundation grant is then further adjusted according to what each community ought to be able to contribute from its own resources, based on personal income. Every district, regardless of wealth or need, is guaranteed a minimum 3 percent annual increase in its grant.

Also notable are the new accountability measures for school districts in return for the new state aid. It's an appropriate tradeoff.

Yes, the end of this year's legislative session was a disappointment. No action was taken on some important issues. School boards had some bills they had hoped would gain approval.
Nevertheless, Spitzer and the lawmakers should be judged on the totality of their record. The new formula will operate for years to compensate for those disparities in wealth from one community to another that for so long consigned some children to an inferior education. Provided they can resist the temptation to tinker with their new creation every time a new political opportunity arises, they should take real pride in their achievement.

Timothy G. Kremer is executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.

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