It's a math problem that has defied solution for decades in New Jersey: How do you equitably fund 616 separate public school districts whose needs are anything but equal?

The answer, of course, is that you don't. You take into consideration that some districts will need more money than others and try to be as fair as possible when distributing the funds.

That's what Gov. Corzine is trying to do with the proposed $7.8 billion education budget he unveiled Wednesday. Give him an A for effort, and an A for trying to be fair - though the budget's detractors most assuredly would like to flunk him.

Among the naysayers are the litigants who brought the lawsuit that led to the 1990

Abbott v. Burke

ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court, which requires the state to give additional education aid to 31 poor school districts.

Corzine's education budget seeks to end the court-ordered policy of giving the Abbott districts at least as much as is spent on students in the wealthiest New Jersey school districts.

He's only trying to be fair. The Abbott districts have been getting half of all the state's education dollars. That's left the remaining 585 districts - many of them with lots of poor students, too - tussling for the leftovers.

In Corzine's budget, every school district would get the same base amount for each student. But funds would be added for low-income students, regardless of where they are enrolled, and for students who speak English as a second language.

Districts would continue to get additional money for special-education students, but Corzine wants to join other states in giving poor districts more special-ed money than wealthy ones.

Using that formula, some districts, including some Abbott districts, would see a decrease in state funding. Corzine would delay that impact for at least three years by padding the budget.

He's guaranteeing every district at least a 2 percent increase in the budget's first year, with a 20 percent cap for districts that otherwise would receive much more under the new formula.

The former Goldman Sachs executive has always had a good head for numbers, but he's got New Jerseyans scratching their heads wondering where a state with a structural deficit in its overall budget is going to come up with extra education money.

His answer had better be a good one, if he expects the Legislature to act on his school funding formula by Feb. 15. That would allow time for the courts to have their say on Corzine's post-Abbott plan and allow the local districts to write their budgets by April, which is essential to preparing schools to open next fall.

Abbott districts expecting a decrease in their eventual funding are understandably upset. But they also must understand that horrifying stories of misspent education dollars in some Abbotts, Newark and Camden most notoriously, suggest a funding adjustment is in order.

In fact, for Corzine to sell his spending plan he and state Education Commissioner Lucille Davy must pay more than lip service to bird-dogging how local districts spend their funds. It won't do to wait for newspapers to reveal misspending before acting on corruption. But Corzine's schools budget has merit. In seeking fairness, it also sets the table for discussions on property tax reform.