New York Post. 3/24/2006.

A five-judge appeals court yesterday wrote a prescription for continued school-funding chaos.

The court ruled that it's up to Gov. Pataki and the Legislature - not the courts - to set budgets for public education: But then it ordered the parties to "consider" an appropriation of at least $4.7 billion a year over five years in new funding for New York City schools.

Yet the judges presented no clear mechanism for forcing the Legislature to "consider" anything - let alone to appropriate an extra dime for the schools.

Or, as Justice David Saxe wrote in dissent, the decision "allows a festering constitutional problem of enormous dimension to continue indefinitely."

Given the political realities in New York, the Court of Appeals (the state's highest bench) likely is still going to have to resolve the constitutional issue at the heart of yesterday's ruling: Who decides the schools budget - courts or elected officials?

"In the final analysis, it is for the governor and the Legislature to make the determination as to the constitutionally mandated amount of funding," wrote the majority, in the 3-2 decision.

"Just as other branches of government may not compel the judiciary to perform non-judicial functions of government, the courts must refrain from arrogating such powers to themselves," it said.

Now that's refreshing language.

After all, as reckless as Albany is with tax dollars, the courts would be even more reckless, given that they're not subject to meaningful electoral oversight.

Accordingly, the justices directed the governor and the Legislature to "consider" hiking funding to city schools by somewhere between $4.7 billion and $5.63 billion a year. (The lower figure was what Pataki suggested in 2004 as part of his budget plan. The higher one was demanded by plaintiffs and endorsed by the trial judge, plaintiff-pliant Leland DeGrasse.)

They also called for more than $9 billion in new capital funds.

Notably, they did not say where the funds should come from - the city's fisc or the state's - a fact that must have Mayor Bloomberg, who supports the plaintiffs, more than a bit nervous.

By our lights, either amount - $4.7 billion or $5.6 billion - is obscene. After all, New York's schools are already among the most expensive anywhere. The idea that more money - billions more - is what's needed to fix them is preposterous.

Again, even the education-cartel front that brought the case - the so-called Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) - admitted in a footnote once that "the success of schools also depends on other [non-school] individuals and institutions to provide the health, intellectual stimulus and family support upon which public-school systems can build.

"Schools cannot and do not perform their role in a vacuum, and this is an important qualification of conclusions reached in any study of [financial] adequacy in education."

Standard & Poor's - which was hired by the state to do its own analysis of how much to spend - issued a similar warning: "There is no guarantee that . . . higher spending . . . will replicate higher achievement . . . across the state."

As to the practical political implications of yesterday's ruling, consider this: For every new dollar Albany sends to City Hall, it will have to send a similar amount to city and suburban districts across the state.

That's how the Legislature works.

Double the appellate court's lowball $4.7 billion figure, and its $9-billion capital-construction number, and compliance will cost a cool $27.4 billion - on top of the billions already spent on the schools.

In fact, per-capita school spending in New York tops the national charts, and has for years.

This case has already been the subject of two Court of Appeals decisions. It's been around since the mid '90s, and is at least the third such effort to force the Legislature to appropriate specific sums for public education since 1971.

This decision seems tailor-made for a trip of its own to the Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, kudos to Pataki for bringing the fight this far. We expect that the schools will get along with the resources they have until the high court decides - and the next round of litigation begins.