Texans Press Long Battle Over Public School Financing

ON May 1, Texas voters will consider an amendment to the state constitution that might end their 25-year battle over achieving equity in public school funding.

If the measure passes, voters will have merely permitted school districts to divide more equitably a revenue pie that many say is too small. Texas, which has the second-largest public school system in the nation, ranks 38th in per-pupil spending.

"Probably even ol' Mississippi is going to pass us soon," says Annette Cootes, spokeswoman for the Texas State Teachers Association.

"The state is broke," adds Libby Linebarger, a former teacher whose six children attend Texas public schools. As a Democrat in the state House of Representatives, Mrs. Linebarger fought to get the amendment on the ballot.

The state Supreme Court has forbidden the transfer of state money to school districts after June 1 if the issue is not resolved before then. That action would effectively shut down the school system, which now depends on the state for about half of its revenue.

The state once provided about 80 percent of the money. The trend toward increasing reliance on property taxes for the balance led property-poor districts to challenge the system. Texas does not have a state income tax, so it relies heavily on property taxes, a system many consider antiquated.

"Whereas another district could raise taxes a penny or two and maybe raise a million dollars, when I raise my taxes a penny, I get $47,000," explains Earle Bolton, deputy superintendent of the Edgewood Independent School District (ISD) near San Antonio. Edgewood was a plaintiff in the suit that started the equity battle.

The district has 14,800 students but only $34,000 in taxable property per student, of whom 99 percent belong to a minority ethnic group. "We're packed with population, but we don't have anything to tax," Mr. Bolton says.

NEARBY Alamo Heights, in contrast, has $388,000 in taxable property for each of its 3,700 students, of whom 77 percent are white.

Two years ago, in response to the Edgewood lawsuit, the state created countywide education districts (CEDs) to group rich and poor school districts together, allowing the poor to get some of the property taxes that would otherwise have gone to rich districts.

This "Robin Hood" plan forced Alamo Heights to cut its $16 million budget by $1 million and to raise another $3 million by boosting the property tax rate by 30 percent. The $4 million went to Edgewood and other property poor districts in the same CED.

But a lawsuit filed by a property-rich school district caused the Texas Supreme Court to rule the CEDs unconstitutional. It allowed them to continue to function, but set the June 1 deadline for a solution.

The Legislature's last-minute solution was to write an amendment that would put CEDs into the constitution. If voters approve it on May 1, then the top 100 or so school districts in property value will continue to lose about $400 million in revenue to less fortunate neighbors.

Bolton says that Edgewood has done well under the CED system. Now, for instance, Edgewood spends $4,700 per pupil, while Alamo Heights spends $4,600. He predicts that Edgewood voters will approve the amendment, but statewide "it's going to be a hard sell. People despise the CEDs so much."

Fred Meyer, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, denounces the amendment for failing to address the longer-term problem of scarce state funds. He says Republicans will organize against the amendment.

Ms. Cootes says the amendment will have the support of 400,000 PTA members, 250,000 teachers, and 170,000 support personnel in schools.

Charles Slater, superintendent of Alamo Heights ISD, also backs the amendment. "That may sound odd," he says, but doing so is better than the alternatives - one of which would be consolidation of the more than 1,000 school districts.

Neither rich nor poor districts want to give up their independence, however. Another alternative would be statewide tax restructuring.

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