Joseph Dolman. Newsday. 3/31/2004.

After many years of struggle in the schoolhouses of America's tough- luck central cities, we've learned this much: It's insanely hard to turn around troubled students who live in a world of chaos and failure.

Now the Zarb commission on school reform has given us a corollary to that: It's insanely hard to rescue troubled school systems that exist in a political world of chaos and failure.

Everyone thought the Zarb group would descend from the the mountaintop with a magic number etched onto its tablets - the amount the state would have to pay to give its neediest kids a sound basic education.

Folks had been laying down markers on the question for months. Gov. George E. Pataki offered a $2-billion plan to be paid for out of the pockets of the state's habitual gamblers. The Board of Regents reckoned the correct number was more like $6 billion. Plaintiffs in the court case that triggered the reform decree said that $9.5 billion seemed about right to them.

But most players preferred to wait for the Zarb group - led by Frank Zarb, the former Wall Street thunderbolt-hurler - to produce the figure that would set the debate. In the end, the commission fooled us all.

Instead of proclaiming a hard number from on high, the Zarb commission said a reasonable figure would range from $2.5 billion to $5.6 billion over five years. The trouble is, the chasm between those numbers is about as wide and deep as the Royal Gorge. Which makes the whole spread meaningless.

Moreover, Zarb never said who should have to dig deeper into their pockets for these extra billions. Should the state just order New York City to ante up the money? After all, the city has about 75 percent of the state's high-needs students. Or should suburbanites pay more to help city schools that Albany has stiffed for years? Zarb didn't answer those questions.

He did talk about how New York City's schools need more resources. Yet he also wrote persuasively about how money isn't everything when it comes to reform. Zarb called for a transparent system of state aid based on need - not on some mysterious set of formulas that maybe four people in the world grasp. At bottom, he delivered a paean to democratic values of fairness and accountability.

So what's not to like?

"We didn't need the Zarb commission to tell us that!" fumed Assemb. Steve Sanders (D-Manhattan), who runs the Education Committee. He was expecting hard numbers.

But Zarb actually offered up better advice. After recounting the technicalities of the issue at hand, he essentially told the Legislature to legislate and the governor to govern.

He built a framework for a smart decision, but he left the details up to elected officials. They're the ones who should say which taxpayers take a hit and which ones get a break. That's why we elect state leaders.

As City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz (D-Manhattan) put it: "We have a dysfunctional system in Albany, and they have to do their job."

Still, I'm not shocked that most people are howling about the Zarb report. It leads us to a really scary place.

Leave it to the politicians?

The state that is too messed up to pass a budget on time is now supposed to resolve the cash problems of the largest school system on the North American continent?

The state that has some of the highest taxes in the nation is now supposed to find a new source of cash to help school systems it has spent decades trying to discriminate against?

Michael Rebell, leader of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which brought the lawsuit, is upbeat. He thinks the big guys in Albany might need to lock themselves in a room until they come up with an answer that can satisfy the court. He thinks they can do the right thing.

But I don't know. It's hard to do the right thing. It takes guts. It entails political risks. And it means sacrifice. Albany hasn't had the practice.

Joseph Dolman is a columnist and member of Newsday's editorial board. His e-mail address is nycdolman@aol.com.'It's hard to do the right thing. It takes guts. It entails political risks. And it means sacrifice.'