June 11, 2006 -- Exactly how far must school dis tricts and municipalities go to ed ucate so-called at-risk children - when the students themselves don't care enough to take advantage of the expensive special options available to them?

That's a critical question, given how a key part of the federal No Child Left Behind law is working out.

Tutoring is a major part of NCLB: The law requires consistently failing public schools to offer students the choice of free tutoring or transfer to a better school.

However, a survey by the nonprofit group Advocates for Children finds that 35 percent of New York City students who enrolled in tutoring under NCLB last school year swiftly dropped out.

Some schools reported a tutoring dropout rate of more than 60 percent.

The city Department of Education doesn't dispute the numbers.

This is far from the city's first problem with NCLB: When the law first kicked in, the Department of Ed failed to fully alert many parents of their right to tutoring or a transfer. Eventually, Chancellor Joel Klein got that resolved.

Yet, now that the tutoring option is known - the kids drop out at the earliest opportunity.

Perhaps it's time to stop reflexively blaming the schools, the teachers and the "system" - and to start asking if more responsibility doesn't lie with the students themselves.

And their parents.

The issue is rarely discussed publicly - because it calls into question the arguments of those seeking more money for teachers and/or New York City's public schools.

Why are New York's schoolchildren underperforming? The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the United Federation of Teachers and the like prefer to talk about funding, training and programs.

Yet all the money and programs in the world won't help if the kids don't show up.

And if the parents don't care. 1