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Panel in Texas Unveils School-Spending Plan

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A school-finance plan that would guarantee equal funding for Texas's 1,063 school districts has been unveiled by Lieut. Gov. Bill Hobby and State Comptroller Bob Bullock.

The recommendations came from the School Finance Working Group, a panel of educators, school-finance experts, and lobbyists convened by the two state leaders. Officials predicted that the consensus document will be the finance-reform blueprint that lawmakers consider when they convene in January.

"This is the train that's leaving the station," said Craig Foster, director of Equity Center, a group of low-wealth districts that convinced a state judge last year to strike down the current school-aid system.

'Guaranteed Yield'

The school-aid budget for the current 1988-89 biennium, which ends next September, is $5 billion. According to officials, the group's proposal would require the state to spend an additional $800 million during the 1990-91 school year, the first year of the program under the proposal.

Under the working group's "guaranteed yield" plan, all districts would receive $3,014 per student from a combination of state and local revenues. The guaranteed amount would increase with each biennial budget in order for all school districts to provide "high quality" levels of education for their students.

All districts would have to impose a 61-cent property-tax rate to qualify for maximum state aid. In districts with limited property-tax bases, state aid would provide the difference between the amount generated locally and the guaranteed $3,014 per-pupil figure.

Because wealthy districts would be able to generate more local revenue on the basis of a 61-cent tax effort, they would receive less state aid.

In addition, state aid could not be increased or decreased by more than 20 percent a year during a five-year phase-in period, the panel proposed. And the current 8 percent limit on local property-tax increases would be suspended for the period.

School Accountability

The working group also suggested that the state take steps to hold schools more accountable to the public. It recommended that:

A small pilot program be developed that would provide state financial incentives to districts that improve student performance.

A new "exemplary" school-accreditation category be created to recognize outstanding districts.

The state develop a norm-referenced test to permit comparisons of individual schools and districts.

The Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills test, the criterion-referenced test now given in odd-numbered grades, be discontinued for 1st graders.

Officials said the working group's recommendations represent a series of compromises among low-wealth and high-wealth districts.

"What we have said to the state is, 'We will agree to no caps on spending or tax rates as long as the state provides equal access to truly high levels of education quality,"' said Mr. Foster.

Robby Collins, a school-finance expert who works as a lobbyist for the Dallas Independent School District, the state's largest high-wealth district, said the proposal would "not cause significant damage" to urban districts, as officials had feared.

He said the guaranteed-yield program provides "equal dollars for equal effort and equal access to quality education" as mandated by the court. A coalition of the state's eight largest urban districts, half of which would lose state aid under the proposal, is studying the recommendations.

Meanwhile, a school-finance study commission appointed by Gov. William P. Clements, House Speaker Gib Lewis, and Mr. Hobby has announced that it may take until December before it completes its report. The panel was originally scheduled to finish its work this month.

The School Finance Working Group plans to submit its recommendations to the select committee at either its Oct. 11 or Nov. 14 meeting.

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