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Texas education reform threatened by budget crisis. But some leaders say state can't afford to scrimp on schooling

With a good chunk of the public on his side, activist billionaire Ross Perot is working to score another victory for education reform in Texas. Three years ago the Dallas computer magnate and supercharged philanthropist led a statewide campaign that succeeded in pushing through the Legislature an education reform package considered revolutionary for Texas.

In addition to higher teacher salaries, the package included provisions for a teacher career ladder, smaller class sizes, all-day kindergarten, and - most controversial of all - a ``no-pass-no-play'' rule that bars students with a failing grade from participating in sports and other extracurricular activities for six weeks.

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Since then, however, the state's economy has slumped in the wake of the worldwide oil glut. With Texas facing billions in budget deficits, Gov. William P. Clements, who came to office in January promising no new taxes, is proposing that some education-reform measures be scaled back or eliminated.

But that threat has displeased Mr. Perot, who insists that Texas ``is not broke.'' He has cautioned state leaders against reneging on the promise he believes they made to the state's future generations with the expensive reform package.

Perot even hinted that he might again undertake the kind of statewide whistle-stop tour that helped garner public support for the 1984 tax increases, if that would help invigorate support for education.

If the state does increase education budgets - for both public and higher education - it will be a clear victory for those leaders, including Lt. Gov. William P. Hobby and San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, who have argued that now, with Texas reeling from a downturn in the oil economy, is no time to back off on education support and reforms.

It is a contention that is being heard in other energy-belt states that are suffering their own budget shortfalls. Changing economies, the argument goes, demand new ideas and workers with new and different skills. And that demand, proponents insist, means that even strapped states must be willing to foot the bill for future-looking education.

In Louisiana, Gov. Edwin Edwards has proposed eliminating some sales-tax exemptions as a way to pay for raises for teachers. And in Oklahoma, state leaders are considering a tax package that allows for general budget cuts of 2 to 3 percent, rather than the 15-percent cuts that would be necessary with no tax increases.

Already this year in Oklahoma, public education was spared any cuts, while other departments saw their budgets whittled by 3 percent. ``The message we get from the legislators is that they'd like to have no cuts in common education at all,'' says Jauna Head, administrator of research for the state Department of Education.

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At one point last week it appeared that Perot's public talk, and a private conversation or two, had had its effect in Texas. Mr. Clements relaxed his previously rock-solid opposition to any new taxes, and most observers credited Perot, along with a number of influential business representatives who have publicly supported increased higher education outlays, for the change of heart.

But by Friday the governor was back to his no-new-taxes stance, apparently chastised by members of his party who considered his new ``flexibility'' to be treasonous.

One Houston representative said Clements would be remembered as the ``worst governor in the state's history'' if he allowed himself to be bullied by ``Czar Perot.''

Many political observers say they now believe a special legislative session well into summer is inevitable, since the impasse between the new-taxes and no-new-taxes forces appears less breakable than ever.

That would exacerbate the planning quandaries facing public school educators, and would augment the uncertainty about salaries and other funding that college and university leaders insist is encouraging a ``brain drain'' from the state.

Many educators and political analysts believe that the Texas public would be supportive of new taxes for education. A survey done by the Texas Poll last summer showed that slightly more than half of all respondents thought outlays for education should be increased.

``For the past two to three years, which includes the period of budget crises, polls have suggested the public will pay higher bills if that will lead to more effective schools,'' says John Moore, chairman of the Department of Education at Trinity University in San Antonio. Dr. Moore leads a forum of local teachers who recently graded the state's reform effort, giving excellent grades for effort, he says, but ``not much for homework and results.''

Noting that business leaders across the state have continued to press Clements and other state leaders for increased education funding, Dr. Moore adds, ``When the heads of the Chambers [of Commerce] start calling for higher taxes, then I think it's going to happen.''

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