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One for the Schools

REAL school reform has to address inequities between rich and poor schools. Now something concrete is being done about it. The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that the state's way of paying for public education unconstitutionally discriminates against poor districts. Outlays per student in the poorest parts of Texas have been under $3,000 a year; the richest districts spend over $7,000 per student.

Americans have lived with these inequities so long, there's a tendency to shrug them off. Property taxes, the backbone of school funding, are going to bring in more where there's higher valued property to tax, aren't they?

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But if the country is serious about reform - if the lofty rhetoric of last week's education summit is to mean anything - ingrained problems like huge disparities in school financing will have to be solved.

In charging the Texas Legislature to come up with a new way of funding, Justice Oscar H. Mauzy noted that ``property-poor districts are trapped in a cycle of poverty from which there is no opportunity to free themselves.'' Opportunity is the operative word. The children in those districts - often black or Hispanic - are shouldered with an opportunity deficit from the moment they enter kindergarten. Some of it comes from home: broken marriages, parents who can't read, poor nourishment. But a lot of it comes from classrooms and teachers deprived of resources standard in wealthier districts on the other side of town.

The problem stretches way beyond Texas. This year alone, courts in two other states - Kentucky and Montana - reached similar conclusions about the inequities of basing school funding on the property tax. Cases are pending in many other states.

The decisions in Texas and elsewhere will doubtless accelerate the trend toward greater state funding of education. This may raise fears of loss of local control over schools. But local people can, and should, remain active partners in deciding how money is spent. More to the point, state funding - now over 50 percent of the education dollar nationwide - frees local districts from the need to return, hat in hand, to often reluctant local taxpayers.

But state funding, in itself, is not a solution. Legislators will have to wrestle with ideas for changing funding formulas and taxation methods - raising money on a county basis, for example, rather than by district. Most important, decisionmakers will have to carefully assess the needs of children in poorer districts and channel money toward those needs.

For too long the American children with the greatest educational needs have been getting the smallest share of educational spending. If the Texas ruling helps adjust that inequity, it will have an assured place in the history of genuine school reform.

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