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Texas School Dilemma Faces Early 1993 Deadline

Public-school financing is a national problem: Twenty-nine states are involved in lawsuits, 10 of them have systems deemed unconstitutional

THE battle in Texas over equitable public-school financing will turn 25 in January, when the state Legislature begins racing against a court-imposed deadline to craft a solution.

A special session of the Legislature that sought to satisfy rich and poor school districts and the state constitution ended in failure last week.

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But Texas is not the only state perplexed by this Gordian knot. Twenty-nine states in all are currently involved in school-finance lawsuits. Ten of these states have financing systems found to be unconstitutional by their supreme courts.

"Is the public-school system going to function?," asks Glenn Linden, a history professor at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, as he contemplates the muddle.

Professor Linden, who is also involved in efforts to improve predominately minority public schools in Dallas, likens the times to the 1830s. Then, Massachusetts educator Horace Mann espoused public schooling for the masses of immigrants to ensure that democracy would continue to function.

The public-school system that came into being in the United States relies on communities to operate their own schools, largely with local property-tax revenues. Districts were fairly similar in agrarian America until the rise of industrialization.

"All of a sudden, you reach the 20th century with these enormous disparities," says Sonia Hernandez, director of education policy in the Texas governor's office. Districts with plenty of high-value property can raise more money with a lower tax rate than low-value districts can with a higher rate.

Thus, during the 1989-90 school year, spending per pupil by the seven school districts in Travis County, Texas, ranged from $3,042 to $6,624. The state average was $3,525, compared with a national average of more than $5,400.

An examination of the Texas racial mix shows that districts are not necessarily wealthier if their residents are white, or poorer if they are populated by blacks or other minorities. Nonetheless, there is a heavy concentration of Hispanics in the poorest districts, says Al Kauffman, a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) in San Antonio. And urban schools with high proportions of minorities tend to spend less per pupil than mostly white suburban schools.

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The equity issue was first raised in federal court in the 1968 case Rodriguez v. San Antonio Independent School District. The US Supreme Court ruled for the status quo in 1973 by declaring that education is not a fundamental right under the Constitution.

Mr. Kauffman and MALDEF turned to the Texas courts in 1984. The state high court agreed in 1989 that the existing system was inequitable, so the court voided it. The Legislature substituted a new system, but the plaintiffs thought it did not go far enough toward equity. The new system was struck down in 1991.

Finally, the Legislature rewrote school financing to the plantiffs' satisfaction, only to have the court void that system as well last January, this time at the behest of a wealthy district.

To avoid disrupting the current school year, however, the court allowed the latest financing law to remain in force until next June. Meanwhile, Texans are not happy about having to pay a tax that has been declared unconstitutional. School taxes rose $1 billion under the system.

Gov. Ann Richards (D) convened a special legislative session last month to tackle the problem. Democrats sought to pass a "fair share" amendment to the constitution, subject to voter approval, that would transfer $400 million from wealthy districts to poorer ones and preempt further court challenges.

Republicans staunchly opposed this "Robin Hood" proposal, which had been hatched by Democrats without their input. Last week, 10 votes short of the needed two-thirds majority in the state House of Representatives, the Legislature gave up and went home.

"Cynical partisan politics," Governor Richards charged. "Playground bully tactics," Republicans answered.

After the Legislature reconvenes, it will have five weeks in which to avoid court intervention. Kauffman says he believes that discussions under way among education interest groups might result in a compromise they could bestow upon legislators. One likelihood is consolidation of the state's 1,054 districts.

But John Moore, an education expert at Trinity University in San Antonio, says he is doubtful. "I don't think we're going to come together until there's more money for public education," he says. That means much more than the additional $650 million in state funds that Richards proposed spending in the next biennium.

There is even talk of a state income tax, heretofore a political fantasy. Professor Moore, for one, says he believes that the special session was a "charade" staged by Democrats to soften voters for such a tax. But voters question how well current school dollars are being spent and seem to be in no mood to accept higher taxes, Ms. Hernandez notes. Meanwhile, increased funding is also being sought for other needs, such as social services and prisons.

"Some shift of the money is essential" if students in poor districts are to have a chance, Linden says. However, "presently there isn't any willingness to share the burden of public education. The people with the money are opting out."

"We say the future is children, but we're not going to support black kids, brown kids. We've got to say they're not my kids or your kids but the nation's kids. If not," Linden predicts, "we're a third-world country down the road."

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