Patty Malgieri (Patty Malgieri of Rochester is president and CEO of the Center for Governmental Research, a nonpartisan policy analysis arm of the Gleason Center for State Policy, based in Rochester and Albany. ). The Post-Standard. 7/13/2004.

Public education remains one of the most contentiously debated issues across New York state. That's understandable, since taxpayers spend $39 billion on K-12 education. Only Medicaid is a larger state expense. Per-pupil spending in New York is currently 41 percent above the national average.

Given that level of education spending, it is reasonable to expect higher levels of academic achievement as a return on taxpayer investment. The problem with the current debate is that it tends to divide people into two distinct camps. Ardent school supporters contend more state aid will yield better performance. Opponents argue that school districts have enough resources and need greater accountability. To make real progress in education, we need a more reasonable debate focused on three key questions:

How is state school aid being allocated?

How does school aid translate into classroom performance?

How can the state help improve performance and ensure accountability?

School districts in Central New York and across the state await a new state school-aid formula resulting from last year's Campaign for Fiscal Equity court decision. The state Court of Appeals ruled that a more equitable formula must be developed to better allocate state aid based on need.

The primary cost-drivers in education in New York are not textbooks, supplies or facilities. Teacher compensation accounts for more than 60 percent of total expenditures. A public high school teacher in New York state makes an average of $56,927 in salary and benefits. School administrators make even more. This combination of compensation and the growing number of staff pushes costs up much faster than the rate of inflation.

Moreover, despite evidence that class-size reductions should be targeted at young and poor students, the state has chosen to encourage costly class-size reduction in all districts and across virtually all grade levels. The resulting pupil-teacher ratio is third-lowest in the nation - far below California, Florida and Texas, which have a higher percentage of poor and limited-English-proficient students.

Most measures reveal that state taxpayers are not getting the best return on their investment. The National Assessment of Educational Progress annual test of sample U.S. students shows that on the fourth-grade math exam, 26 other states did as well as or better than New York; on the eighth-grade-math exam, 24 states did as well or better; on the fourth-grade reading exam, 17 states did as well or better; and on the eighth-grade reading exam, 23 states did as well or better.

An Urban Institute study recently cited our state as having the worst graduation rates for African-Americans and Hispanics in the nation. As troubling are federal No Child Left Behind test standards, in which the New York State Education Department designated 487 schools and 27 entire districts as "failing," including Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Yonkers.

The state can take steps to help individual districts improve classroom performance and make sure resources are spent wisely, according to need:

Develop and adhere to competitive accountability standards.

Target smaller class sizes to the youngest, poorest students.

Provide incentives to districts that deliver administrative support services, improve efficiency and reduce spending.

Give priority to programs with documented cost-effectiveness and impact on performance, such as early childhood and model dropout-prevention.

Rather than the traditional us vs. them budget battle, communities can benefit from a reasoned discussion. We should be able to spend smarter and receive more from our schools. More information is available at www.competitivenys.com.

Patty Malgieri of Rochester is president and CEO of the Center for Governmental Research, a nonpartisan policy analysis arm of the Gleason Center for State Policy, based in Rochester and Albany.