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Texas School-Finance Plan Ruled Unconstitutional

IN what is seen as a victory for Texas minorities, a state district judge last week ruled unconstitutional a compromise public school finance bill and ordered lawmakers to devise a more equitable bill by next Sept. 1. But given lawmakers' history of reluctance to make basic changes in how Texas funds its schools, many Texans wonder if the matter eventually will return to court.

The need for a more equitable system of funding public schools has been debated in Texas for more than 20 years. In 1969, Demetrio Rodriguez, a parent in the mostly Hispanic Edgewood district in San Antonio, filed a federal suit calling the state's method of funding schools unconstitutional. Mr. Rodriguez claimed his children were denied equal access to a quality education.

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Although ad valorem property taxes are higher in the Edgewood district than in others, low property values in this largely residential area do not generate the same levels of tax revenue other property-rich districts can reach at lower tax rates. Consequently, spending-per-pupil is less in Edgewood than in other districts, an example of the wide disparities in spending among Texas' nearly 1,100 school districts.

On hearing the Rodriguez case in 1973, the United States Supreme Court found the Texas school funding system ``chaotic and unjust,'' but said the issue must be addressed by the state.

It wasn't until last year that the matter reached the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the state's unequally distributed $11 billion-a-year system denied districts ``substantially equal access to similar revenues per pupil at similar levels of tax effort.''

In January of this year, Gov. Bill Clements (R) called a special legislative session on education. It took lawmakers four special sessions to agree on Senate Bill 1 (SB1), which included reforms in school administration and allotted more funds for education. In June, Governor Clements broke his ``no new taxes'' pledge and signed a quarter-cent sales tax increase to pump $528 million into the funding system.

While the new law will remain in effect for this school year, State District Judge Scott McCown ruled it ``does nothing to eliminate the disparities in local wealth - [it] is not the dramatic structural reform ... required.''

Relying on the unequal property tax means where a child lives ``largely determine[s] the quality of the education opportunities available to him,'' Mr. McCown says.

Texas Education Commissioner William Kirby, who will be retiring in January, says lawmakers must now reconsider unpopular solutions, such as ``consolidation of school districts or tax bases, caps on local district spending, or Robin Hood finance plans in which money is taken from wealthy school districts and redistributed to property-poor districts.''

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The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), which is representing the plaintiffs, favors a county-wide tax base to reduce the effect of property value disparities.

MALDEF endorses a bill to that end sponsored by Rep. Gregory Luna (D), whose district includes most of the Edgewood district. The bill was given a reading, but has been virtually ignored, he says.

Relying on the ad valorem tax means inequality, Mr. Luna says, but the mention of tax reform frightens Texas voters. ``I dare not whisper `personal income tax,''' he says. ``It's political suicide.''

Kevin O'Hanion, attorney for the Texas Education Agency, the state agency regulating education, says he'd like to know what would pass Judge McCown's equity test. ``He held [SB1] unconstitutional ... but he didn't really give us a heck of a lot of guidance'' for the new system, Mr. O'Hanion says.

Clements, meanwhile, says he hopes the State Supreme Court will reverse the district court's decision on appeal.

Many of the major players in the school-funding drama will no longer be in office when the legislature meets for its regular biennial session in January. Next month, Texas will elect a new governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and two new state Supreme Court justices. A new education commissioner will be appointed by the next governor.

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