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Eyes of Texans Are Upon State's Method Of Funding Schools

TEXANS are watching warily as their Legislature decides how to respond to a court order requiring the state to fix the flawed system that funds its school districts. On Feb. 27 the Legislature will meet in special session to choose between two equally unpopular solutions - taking money from wealthy districts to give to poor ones or finding new funds.

Lawmakers have been given a May 1 deadline by the State Supreme Court to agree on a new financing plan for state public schools that gives districts equal access to funding. If the Legislature fails, the court will implement its own plan.

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Just how this issue is finally resolved could make or break the state's economic future, says James Vasquez, superintendent of the plaintiff Edgewood Independent School District in San Antonio. He calls the ruling a ``major victory'' for poor districts with a high percentage of minority students, such as his own.

In October, a unanimous court decision in Edgewood v. Kirby found the state's method of financing schools violated the Texas constitution because of funding inequities. Currently the state provides 47 percent of school revenues while districts raise 53 percent from local property taxes.

State property values and student populations have grown unevenly, and now districts with a limited property tax base, though taxing at high rates, are unable to raise as much as their wealthier counterparts can at lower tax rates. Consequently, the average property wealth in the 100 wealthiest districts is more than 20 times greater than the 100 poorest districts.

The ruling ``opens the door to ensure that the kids will have some kind of equal shot at getting the same quality education, which is very important given the changing demography of the state,'' Mr. Vasquez says. Census figures project that by the year 2000, the Hispanic percentage of the Texas labor force will have more than doubled since 1980, to reach 24 percent or more. The fraction of black labor is expected to hold steady at 11 percent.

But if educational trends continue, Hispanics will remain the most undereducated group, and still have the highest dropout rate - 45 percent. Vasquez says the figures reflect the low priority Texas places on education for minorities, and that a change in thinking about minorities must accompany change in the system.

``They keep telling me that the skew of things ... just happened,'' Vasquez says. ``In the bottom 200 poorest school districts, 90 percent of the population happen to be minorities. I'm an old math teacher, and I say chance doesn't work that way. What happens to minorities does affect the future of this state. [We] won't have a work force unless they're educated.''

Already businesses are having increasing difficulty finding qualified high school graduates to fill entry-level positions, says Mike Edelmann, director of economic development for Southwestern Bell Telephone's Texas division. Mr. Edelmann says Bell expects to have to screen 24,000 applicants before finding hireable candidates for the next 5,000 entry-level positions. Each screening includes testing, interviewing, and processing costs.

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Texas' 33 percent dropout rate costs the state billions a year in direct costs and economic losses, says state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D) of Austin. Over a lifetime, one dropout can cost $60,000 in lost tax revenue. High-school dropouts make up two-thirds of the state's welfare recipients, and 90 percent of Texas' 40,000 prison inmates - the highest per capita of any state - never finished 12th grade, Senator Barrientos says.

Currently the state spends an average of $3,221 per student per year, but spends close to $15,000 per prisoner. ``It's cheaper to send a kid to Harvard than it is to send him to Huntsville [prison],'' Barrientos says.

``What we've got to [do] is come up with significantly more money to put into the system, so that rather than leveling down to a mediocre level, we level up ... ,'' says William Kirby, the state's education commissioner. Vasquez is equally blunt.

``We will be back in court within an hour if a bill [is passed] that ... will not meet the standard of the court decision,'' he says.

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