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The School-Funding Saga

New Jersey is the latest state to attempt a step toward greater equity in education funding. Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) plans to tie all public-school spending to a statewide system of educational standards. She hopes this will satisfy state Supreme Court demands to close the dollar gap between rich and poor districts.

Whether she's right about that is far from clear. Lots of legal, and political, maneuvering lies ahead. But she is right to make the connection between spending and standards. The question of how much to spend has to merge with the question of how to spend it.

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Both questions affect America's ongoing education-reform movement, which is slowly reshaping the way children are prepared for work and civic life. Change demands a shift in resources - and some hard thinking about which courses are truly essential, or where dollars can be most efficiently spent.

Funding equity, a hot issue in New Jersey and dozens of other states, is entwined with school reform. It has never been right that kids in districts with pinched tax bases are deprived of learning opportunities routinely afforded those in wealthier districts - not when state constitutions, like New Jersey's, require a "thorough and efficient education" for all. But the process of arriving at equity is politically tortuous. No one wants spending cut, and few Americans want to lose "local control" of schools.

Moreover, the energy behind efforts to alter the property tax - traditionally the wellspring of school dollars - comes as much from overburdened taxpayers as from plaintiffs or judges concerned about equity in education. In many places, the upshot has been a hefty shift in school funding from localities to the state.

Michigan, for example, did away with its property tax altogether not long ago, and has since arrived at a combination of revenue sources to sustain education. Included are sales taxes and a statewide version of the property tax. Michigan's education funding is now 70 percent state, 30 percent local - almost the reverse of what it had been.

In California, more than 80 percent of funding comes from the state, a legacy of the Proposition 13 tax revolt almost two decades ago. Illinois has been trying to adjust its tax structure in line with school-equity concerns for decades. Texas, whose high court ruled its school-funding system unconstitutional in 1989, has resorted to regional property taxes. Kentucky is perhaps the most extreme example. Since its whole educational system (not just the financing structure) was declared unconstitutional in 1989, the state has reworked everything from curricula to taxes - with considerable success.

All told, nearly half the 50 states remain actively involved in legal actions challenging their school-finance methods. Typically, this litigation mixes with rumblings for property-tax relief and with the push for overall education reform. When that reform includes tougher standards, the definition of what's adequate under state constitutions can shift, and funding requirements can rise.

There may be some confusion from all this in the short term, as politicians and educators sort out priorities. But ultimately there should be a fusion of interests, culminating in school dollars more effectively spent.

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