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Texas School-Finance System Is Challenged

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Some 11 years after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Texas's system of financing public schools, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has launched a new challenge in state court, charging that the finance system denies students in poor districts equal educational opportunity and should be declared unconstitutional.

The suit, filed on behalf of eight school districts and 25 individual families, contends that the funding scheme violates the state constitution's call for an "efficient system of public free school."

In the suit filed May 23 in District Court for Travis County, the plaintiffs also allege that the school-finance system violates a state statute guaranteeing equal educational opportunity to all students regardless of their residence. Named as defendants in the suit are Gov. Mark White, State Commissioner of Education Raymon Bynum, and State Comptroller Robert Bullock.

Albert Kauffman, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said last week that the state's funding system is unconstitutional because it discriminates against all students in low-property-wealth districts, against the school systems themselves, and against Mexican-Americans and poor students and their families in particular.

The independent school districts that have joined in the suit are Socorro, San Elizario, Brownsville, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, Eagle Pass, La Vega, Edgewood, and South San Antonio, according to Mr. Kauffman. Together, they enroll about 90,000 students.

The disparities are illustrated, Mr. Kauffman said, by the fact that taxable property values in the state range from $12 million per student in the Santa Gertrudis Independent School District to $22,000 per student in the Edgewood Independent School District, a plaintiff in the current suit and in the unsuccessful challenge heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

'Rational Basis' Test

In that case, Rodriguez v. San Antonio, the Court held in 1973 that education was not a "fundamental interest" expressly protected under the U.S. Constitution and that the state's funding system need only have a "rational basis."

The Court also ruled that despite evidence of funding inequities, the state's school-finance system provided "a floor of opportunity" for all students.

Noting the similarities in the Rodriguez case and the latest suit, Mr. Kauffman said the state's funding system continues to have the same problems. But he maintained that the current suit is not a continuation of that earlier case.

The Rodriguez case, according to Mr. Kauffman was heard in "federal court and it addressed federal constitutional questions." In its decision, he added, "the Supreme Court said it should be a matter looked at under state law and that's what we're doing now."

Revisions Needed

Although the state will spend about $4.4 billion in support of education during the next fiscal year, state officials have acknowledged for some time that the current system is in need of revision.

"The state board has been on record for years recommending significant changes in the funding system," said William N. Kirby, deputy commissioner for finance. "So it's not news to anybody that there need to be improvements in funding."

This week, the Texas General Assembly is scheduled to convene in a special session to consider several school-reform proposals, including proposed revisions in the school-finance law.

Complex Aid Formula

The state's basic-aid program, which is called the foundation program and is described as "extremely complex" by both the attorney for the plaintiffs and state education officials, takes into consideration local property values and staffing needs in determining the amount of aid to the schools.

Under the foundation program, school districts receive equalization aid, which next year will be funded at a level of $281 million. More than $3.2 billion will be distributed to school districts for salaries, maintenance operations, and transportation; $240 million will be earmarked for vocational programs; and $428 million will go toward the cost of special-education programs.

Of next year's $4.4-billion allocation for the foundation program, the state will contribute $3.9 billion (about 88.5 percent) toward the schools' operating costs, while the local share will be about about $510- million (about 11.5 percent), according to Mr. Kirby.

Overall, the state's share of the total cost of education is about 48 percent and the local share is about 45 percent. The remaining percentage represents the federal contribution.

Poor Districts Affected

"The problem is that the school foundation program isn't enough" to meet the schools' needs and local communities must raise the difference through property taxes, Mr. Kauffman argued. There is less of a problem for wealthier communities, he added, because they can raise the required school funds at a much lower tax rate than the poorer communities can.

In responding to the plaintiffs' charges, Richard L. Arnett, deputy commissioner for legal services for the Texas Education Agency, said the current funding problems are the result of increases in property values in some areas over the last 10 years. He said the state has been slow in addressing the changes needed in the school-funding system for "all the reasons that things don't get passed by the legislature."

"Our general feeling was that we were finally going to see some changes in the funding component without the suit," Mr. Arnett added. "I think the commissioner would rather see them wait to see if something can be resolved."

Citing the seriousness of the problem, Mr. Kauffman said that after working for the past nine months to prepare the case, "We decided to go ahead with [the suit] regardless of the special session."

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