IN east Austin, the Del Valle Independent School District has an 80-cent tax rate and spends $3,476 per student. Across town, in the moneyed surroundings of trees and hills and lakes, the Lago Vista district has a $1.22 tax rate and spends $6,500 per student. In southeast San Antonio, the Edgewood Independent School District spends just over $3,100 per student, while a few miles to the northwest, the wealthy and established Alamo Heights district spends about $1,300 more per student, despite a local property tax rate that is about a dime lower.
Such vastly divergent educational expenditures are repeated hundreds of times across Texas, the result of a public school finance system that relies on local property taxes for nearly half its funding in a state with more than 1,000 school districts.
Critics of the system say it is a ``fatal flaw'' that builds in unequal educations and unequal access to opportunities for Texas children and ultimately darkens the state's economic prospects.
Ruled unconstitutional last year by a state district judge, Texas's school finance system will receive more attention in the coming year as the Legislature labors to meet a deadline set by the court to fashion a more equitable system.
Many school finance officials, educators, and representatives of both wealthy and poor districts say a new finance scheme can be worked out over the next year. Virtually everyone from Gov. Bill Clements on down agrees that the state must provide more assistance to its poor districts.
``There's unanimous agreement in Texas that the property-poor districts need more money to operate,'' says Don Rogers, superintendent of the wealthy and high-spending Eanes district in Austin.
But a number of road mines remain in that path, since any plan is likely to deliver less state aid to wealthy districts. In addition, public discussion will unavoidably raise such volatile issues as local control of schools, district consolidation, and limitations on expenditures of wealthy districts.
``There's room for compromise, but ... I can see it all falling apart, too,'' says Mark Yudof, dean of the University of Texas Law School here and an authority on school finance. ``One side labels this as one more intrusion by the judiciary, while the other says the education issue will quite simply determine the future of the state. Each side has been very good at amplifying the right association to further its cause.''
Says Texas Comptroller Bob Bullock, who has come up with his own plan to raise state aid to poor districts, ``We've been snake bit, but that shouldn't scare us into thinking we don't have an antidote.''
Texas is not the only state now tackling the need to equalize school financing.
In Kentucky, a state judge struck down that state's school finance system last May, calling it ``one of the most severely deficient in the nation.'' Stating that ``Kentucky's children ... are suffering from an extreme case of educational malnutrition,'' Judge Ray Corns ordered a select committee he appointed to produce a finance master plan to serve as a guide for the governor and state General Assembly.
In Oregon, what Gov. Neil Goldschmidt has termed a ``creaky school finance structure'' has moved several small steps toward reform after earlier attempts at large-scale overhauls failed to gain voter approval. Last year, state aid to schools was boosted, and voters approved a ``safety net'' to help pull poor districts through short-term financial crises. (Such crises had in recent years resulted in school closings of a month or more, bringing Oregon some unwanted negative national attention.)
Now Governor Goldschmidt is awaiting the report this month of a school finance reform commission that should recommend further steps in what he calls an ``evolutionary'' process.
The battles such emotion-laden issues as local schools, local control, and taxes elicit have been waged across the country for decades. The conflict was intrinsic to educational systems that coupled state responsibility for ensuring efficiency with largely local funding based on property values.
After World War II, Dean Yudof notes, a number of states attempted to provide a certain minimum assistance to districts, while leaving ``enrichment'' programs to local property taxes. But state aid did not keep up with costs, and by the late 1960s, national education experts were publishing studies - such as one titled ``Private Wealth and Public Education'' - that received as much attention as the federal government's ``A Nation at Risk'' has in this decade.
A Texas school finance case reached the US Supreme Court in 1973, but the Burger court was ``not attracted to extending new precedents,'' says Dean Yudof, and the issue was left to the individual states. Reform seekers, left to scrutinize state constitutions, filed a number of lawsuits, most notably in California and New Jersey, that have led to varying finance solutions across the country. Last month New Jersy's system of financing public education was declared unconstitutional due to large differences between affluent suburban and poor urban school districts.
California has greatly increased state aid to poor districts while limiting spending by wealthy ones. Differences between districts in per-pupil spending cannot exceed $200. Wyoming has a plan that ``recaptures'' excess local property tax revenue from wealthy districts and distributes it to poorer ones. Colorado this year passed a finance plan that limits spending by wealthy districts, and Florida recently approved a plan that consolidates districts by county and attenuates spending discrepancies among districts.
The threat of measures limiting spending in districts willing and able to spend more than the average is keeping the school finance controversy alive in Texas.
``We think that kind of `leveling down' would encourage people to abandon the public schools in districts like ours,'' says the wealthy Eanes district's Dr. Rogers.
In fact few advocates poor districts in Texas say they are interested in seeing any spending limits: Their concern is making sure poor districts are able to spend enough to ensure a sound basic education.
``We don't believe we need `recapturing' to have a fair and equalized system in Texas,'' says Craig Foster, director of the Equity Center, which represents 122 poor school districts. ``And if the state comes up with a plan that ensures something like $4,000 is spent per student, without hitting the property owners in poor districts too heavily,''he adds, ``we don't care how many indoor tennis courts they have or computers they send home in Highland Park'' (a wealthy Dallas district).
Advocates of reform say some consolidation of districts will be necessary if the state is to run an ``efficient'' school system, as the Texas constitution dictates. Texas has 1,060 school districts. Some are unabashed tax havens for mineral wealth, providing education for fewer than 100 students while protecting vast amounts of property wealth from neighboring poor school districts.
``About 20 percent of the districts have fewer than 200 students,'' notes David Richards, an attorney for poor districts in the finance case. ``Twenty years ago there was a recommendation that any one district have a minimum 2,600 students. But when you shake that tree, you scare a whole lot of baronial interests.''
Yet while there is little disagreement over the need for additional state aid to poor districts, the question of the judiciary's role in school finance reform - and by extension, in determining taxation - continues to fuel controversy.
Supporters of strictly legislative remedies see court intervention as a sort of foot in the door toward the kinds of limits that California now has. ``The danger we see [in judicial intervention] is the inevitability that we will lose local control over the management and administration of school affairs,'' says Jim Turner, an attorney representing 42 wealthy districts.
Those who have sought relief in the courts say taking the courts out of the picture, as some Republican leaders hope to do through a constitutional amendment, would leave them without remedy: They note that a 1984 legislative plan to dramatically increase state aid to poor districts was never fully funded. And they are convinced that the current interest in finance reform would not have occurred without the district judge's order.
That ruling, now being appealed, is expected to reach the Texas Supreme Court by the end of the year. Regardless of the outcome, poor districts in Texas will get more money next year, or the issue will be back in the courts.
``The state is responsible for providing an equal education with equal opportunities for our children,'' says Edgewood Superintendent James R. Vasquez. ``Our local taxpayers are doing their part, but they're not getting equal treatment for equal effort.''