Texas Lawmakers Hope Third Try Will Bring Fair School Financing

Earlier bill met veto; court-ordered reform looms at June 1 deadline. SCHOOL FINANCE REFORM

AFTER missing a court-imposed deadline last week, the Texas government has been given until June 1 to reform the state's lopsided school funding system. A unanimous Texas Supreme Court ruled last October that the state's method of funding schools is unconstitutional due to great inequities in funds available from district to district.

While the Texas Legislature and governor agree that more money is needed to comply with ruling, they have not been able to agree on how much money is needed and where the new money should come from.

Lawmakers are now beginning their third consecutive special session since Feb. 27. Their first 30-day session was fruitless; the second ended - on the deadline date of May 1 - with outgoing Gov. William Clements (R) vetoing a House and Senate compromise bill that would have raised the state sales tax by a half-cent.

As Governor Clements was vetoing the bill, state Attorney General Jim Mattox was asking District Judge Scott McCown to give legislators more time to resolve the issue. In granting a 30-day extension, Judge McCown avoided possible school closures by staying a Supreme Court injunction that would have prevented state aid checks from going to the schools.

Plaintiffs and defendants in the case have until today to submit to the judge candidates for a court ``master,'' who will develop an equitable spending plan. This plan will be implemented and enforced by the court system - possibly at the expense of wealthier school districts - if legislators fail to act.

``We've got to have a new law by Sept. 1, 1990,'' McCown said last week. ``The poor have waited too long.''

In the past, any steps the state made toward equalization through increasing state aid to property-poor districts were negated as soon as wealthier districts raised property taxes, says Alan Barnes, senior researcher at the Texas Research League, a nonprofit corporation that analyzes Texas government.

``So long as you rely heavily on the property tax, and property values continue to be as disparate across the state, you're going to have difficulty devising a system that provides equity,'' says state Education Commissioner William Kirby.

Since the court lacks the authority to raise new monies, any court plan would use a ``Robin Hood'' approach, taking millions of dollars already appropriated for wealthy districts to give to poor ones, says Dr. Kirby.

Property-poor districts stand to gain from the ``Robin Hood'' approach of the court even if the Legislature misses its deadline, says James Vasquez, superintendent of the Edgewood Independent School District in San Antonio that brought suit against the state.

A report issued by United States Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos last week ranked Texas 37th in the nation in per-pupil expenditures.

From the start, Clements had vowed ``no new taxes'' would be levied for school funding. Texas is still recovering from economic setbacks from the '80s oil bust.

Clements introduced his own plan last week at the start of the third session, but it has been virtually ignored by legislators who say its $250 million funding increase, achieved through budget reallocations and fee increases, is inadequate.

Instead, the Senate Education Committee has reapproved the same $555 million compromise plan - including the sales-tax hike - that the governor vetoed last week.

The bill is expected to pass a vote this week in the Democratically controlled Senate.

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