A DETERMINED effort is under way to force basic changes in the way public schools are financed in the United States.
Lawsuits challenging traditional property-tax systems have been filed in 41 states. While some suits are in early stages of litigation, others have worked their way to state supreme courts and reforms are being implemented.
Greater equity is the objective in all these cases. A system that funds schools according to the wealth of surrounding communities generates wide disparities in school buildings, materials, and teacher salaries, plaintiffs argue. As a result, they say, children in poorer districts generally get inferior educations.
Underlying the legal push, says Ernest Boyer, head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, is a tough question for Americans: "whether we are smart enough to design a better way to fund public education."
Dr. Boyer sees some cause for optimism. In Kentucky, for example, a state supreme-court ruling striking down the old property-based funding system has brought thoroughgoing reform, including a new statewide sales tax that could generate up to $1 billion in new school funds.
But Kentucky is the exception, Boyer says. The process of bringing more fairness into school funding is still in the early stages, and he sees many instances of "marginal efforts to lift up those at the bottom."
The relief granted by state courts may be "piecemeal," says Massachusetts-based author Jonathan Kozol, who has written widely on equity issues in education. But in almost all the current cases, he says, "it is clear that the courts regard the present system as not merely mechanically flawed, but inherently unworkable."
Greater judicial activism at the state level is a critical factor in the push to reduce reliance on the property tax. Lawyers realize that the state courts, not the federal courts, are now the best places to argue questions like educational equity, observes Neil Cogan, associate dean of the Southern Methodist University Law School in Dallas. The US Supreme Court in 1973 washed its hands of the issue in a case from Texas. The justices held that a right to equality of education could not be found in the US
In some places, judicial activism has extended virtually to coordinating the reform process. Kansas state district court Judge Terry Bullock, before presiding in a trial, concluded that the state's funding system was probably unconstitutional. He brought together the plaintiffs, legislators, and other interested parties to hammer out a possible solution. Among the judge's guidelines: All property-tax receipts are Kansas money, not the possession of individual districts.
In the early litigation over school funding, plaintiffs claimed that funding procedures discriminated against poor people. But in the two dozen or so cases filed since the mid-1980s, those challenging funding plans have relied instead on state constitutional guarantees of an "adequate," "efficient," or "effective" education for all schoolchildren, explains Mary Fulton, an analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Denver. These cases, she says, zero in on the inability of property taxes - eve n when bolstered by state aid - to raise poor districts to parity with wealthier districts.
The Texas Legislature, under pressure from a 1989 state supreme-court decision, lumped school districts into countywide taxation areas that pool property-tax receipts. The constitutional amendment goes before voters in May.
But even if the amendment passes, it's only a partial solution, says Billy D. Walker, executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards. "The amendment will give them a tool but not the materials - the money - to build something," he says.
"The solution is simple," says Alan Hickrod, director of the Center for the Study of Educational Finance at Illinois State University in Normal, Ill. "You've got to move off the property tax and onto state sales and incomes taxes."
But in Texas and the eight other states without a state income tax, that solution is anything but politically simple, as Dr. Hickrod acknowledges. Instead of taking the perilous route of levying a new statewide tax, legislators are often more inclined to tinker with existing revenues, redistribute property taxes, as in Texas, or readjust state school-aid formulas.
In this way money flows from wealthier, usually suburban school districts to poor urban or rural ones. "I have a strong hunch," Hickrod says, "that in many of these legislatures, the suburban representation is so strong they simply dig in their heels. If they don't see themselves getting anything out of it, they won't vote for it."
Legislators, as well their constituents, also dig in against a loss of local control over school decisions. For many, this issue is inseparable from reliance on local property taxes. Dr. Walker, in Texas, says those who want to reform educational funding are pushing against "a real tradition of localism." People are leery of any move toward state control of schools, he says.
While a majority of states are wrestling with the equity questions springing from reliance on property taxes, some states will probably be spared such a fight, says John Meyers, who monitors educational issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Hawaii, for example, has one statewide school district. Florida has a county-based system that tends to equalize funding. And a few states, like South Carolina, have no provisions in their constitutions likely to spark successful lawsuits, Mr. Meye rs says.