PRINCETON - Three former New Jersey governors said yesterday they support a proposal by Gov. Corzine to distribute state aid for education based on the number of low-income students in a particular school district, but all said the idea would be a tough sell.

The comments by Brendan T. Byrne, James J. Florio and Donald T. DiFrancesco came at a discussion about the

Abbott v. Burke

state Supreme Court decision, which mandated New Jersey do more to help poorer school districts. The Abbott decision directed the money to specifically designated poor districts whereas Corzine's plan would provide the state subsidies to any district with low-income students, regardless of location.

"An at-risk child, depending on where they live, is no less at risk than a child in one of the Abbott districts," said Florio, but he said it would be difficult to persuade legislators to approve the plan: "Where do you get the money?"

The Abbott decision and subsequent, related court rulings stem from a lawsuit filed in 1981 by the nonprofit Education Law Center on behalf of children in the state's poorest areas.

Beginning in 1990, the New Jersey Supreme Court directed the state to take specific steps to give those students the same educational opportunities as wealthier suburban children.

The reforms included closing the spending gap between the richest and poorest districts, building new schools and repairing old ones, and providing preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

The court originally specified 28 districts for special aid; that number was later increased to 31.

The three governors speaking yesterday said they wanted to see the specific details of Corzine's proposal, but that generally they supported the thrust of his plan.

One of the details that is known is that Corzine is proposing a half-billion-dollar increase in state school funding as a way to alleviate the state's highest-in-the-nation property taxes.

But the governors said there is much more of a distrust these days with how government and districts spend money, which would pose a challenge in getting the proposal passed.

"I'm not sure that the Abbott districts are spending all the money wisely," Byrne said.

He said it used to be that people, including himself, thought that more money was the answer, but not anymore. "People no longer believe that. They no longer believe that money solves educational problems. . . . You have to have people believe that we're doing something."