Joseph Dolman. Newsday. 7/2/2003.


For an army of embattled New York City public school boosters, the news last week was about as intoxicating as a washtub full of vintage Bordeaux.


And no wonder. After years of uphill legal skirmishes and hopeless political fights, the advocates were suddenly and gloriously winners.


Their tales of deprivation and injustice at the hands of a craven State Legislature were true, all true, State Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith Kaye reckoned in a landmark decision. The court gave Albany's grandees 400 days to fix things.


The pols and lawyers who gathered at City Hall for a quick televised celebration lost no time in heralding "a new day" for New York's 1.1 million students. One attorney even hailed the outcome as "the moral equivalent" of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that demanded an end to segregated public schools.


I really hope he's wrong.


For starters, it took nearly two decades and the occasional deployment of federal troops to make Brown anything less than a sham. Even now, it's hard to call America's schools integrated. New York cannot waste that kind of time of time as it struggles to rescue its failing schools. Nor does it have room for such an ambiguous outcome.


Maybe this is a moral fight - but it's much more than that, and we should never forget it.


The lofty phrases of Judge Kaye's legal decision have already touched off a gut-level fight for state dollars in Albany's gladiatorial pits.


The moral points are easy to win. Every one - in principle - wants to see impoverished urban kids succeed in school. But can New York City use this decision in the cold hard light of day to drag significantly more education money out of state taxpayers? Can it do so without starting an ugly and destructive fight between suburban leaders and urban politicians? And then, can it invest its windfall to create a school system that, despite its size, is suddenly dazzling, efficient and effective?


Stop laughing. The job isn't totally impossible. Still, Kaye's decision is about three miracles shy of a fait accompli. It's time for urban school buffs to sober up. The real work has just begun.


The city's schools are plagued at the moment with large class sizes, lousy instruction, buildings out of the dark ages and a shortage of computers and library books and other niceties. It's a system with a four-year graduation rate of 50 percent and a functional illiteracy rate of 33 percent.


So how much money would it take to bring the outfit up to par - to give it as much funding, say, as districts that enjoy 80 percent passing rates on five or more Regents exams?


The city's Independent Budget Office ran that calculation a few months ago and decided that the New York system would need about $3.3 billion more in state and city funds. The first task for city school backers is to figure out how our flat-broke state and city governments are supposed to come up with numbers like that.


Don't ask me what the answer is. But I do have two observations. I think it would be unfair to raise city school aid at the expense of suburban schools. Yet, I also think the suburbs have a direct stake in the city's long march toward educational excellence.


It's nice that crime has fallen to record lows. But that trend alone won't drive the great urban resurgence that cosmopolitans still yearn for.


Without a robust middle class that can send its kids to competent public schools, New York City will never recapture its former greatness. This does not bode well for a place like Nassau County - where about a third of all residents not only work in the city but bring home 50 percent of the county's wages. Before the city and its neighbors come to blows over who gets how much school money, they need to remember their mutual dependence.


But what if the money problems can be fixed? Can Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein ensure that the cash is effectively used?


Anyone who claims to know the answer is lying. Bloomberg and Klein are knee-deep in a vast renovation of the system right now. And people say their secondary echelon of school bureaucrats - the folks just under Klein - tend to be underwhelming. Who knows? It's way too early to pass judgment. But let me tell you this: Without dramatic school reform, Judge Kaye's brand of justice will amount to little more than an incredibly costly joke.


How tough will the job be?


Pass the bottle, please.