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Texas Panel Ducks Aid Issue, But Suggests New Reforms

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After 10 months of study, a panel appointed to develop a new school-finance system for Texas has instead recommended three similar options, none of which would satisfy the court ruling that found the current finance system unconstitutional.

The 15-member Select Committee on Education Deliberations appointed by Gov. William P. Clements had bogged down, observers said, in a divisive internal debate that left it unable to agree on a single recommendation.

But the committee--also charged with conducting a broad review of school quality--did recommend that the state adopt requirements for foreign-language proficiency and a longer school year, and relax its controversial 22-student class-size limit in grades K-4.

Those proposals have been called the most sweeping since 1984, when the Dallas billionaire H. Ross Perot led a statewide campaign to overhaul the precollegiate system.

The panel's final report was still being drafted for presention to the legislature next month or in January, when lawmakers convene for4the 1989-90 biennial session.

Under the terms of a 1987 court ruling in which Judge Harley Clark declared the current finance system unconstitutional, the legislature has until Sept. 1, 1989, to replace it with a method that would meet the ruling's definition of equity.

School-finance experts have termed the definition the most stringent ever offered by a court. In his ruling in Edgewood v. Kirby, Judge Clark held that 100 percent of the children in Texas schools must be provided equal education resources. That strict equity, he ruled, requires all school districts to generate the same amount of tax revenue with the same amount of tax effort.

In Texas, the third-largest state, the cost of his court order could be enormous at a time when the oil-fueled economy is in a slump. Texas currently spends $4.7 billion a year on its schools.

The panel consisted of five members appointed by the Governor, a Republican who has advocated minimal additions to the funding8formula, five members recommended by the Democratic House speaker, and five members recommended by the Democratic lieutenant governor, who is also the Senate leader. That political make-up, observers said, guaranteed from the start that the committee would have great difficulty agreeing on how to handle the explosive finance issue.

As expected, some panel members supported only a modest increase in funds to support formula changes, some continued to support the current foundation formula--which establishes basic programs and shares the cost with local districts--and some supported a state-guaranteed-yield plan.

Each of the three "progress options"--so named to underscore the committee's view that they represent "progress" toward the judge's goal--would require a district to adopt a set levy rate in order to qualify for a maximum level of state funds; the combination of the state and local funds would become the expenditure floor. A district that chose to tax at a lower rate would receive a smaller state supplement.

The distinctions between the three options involve the amount of the per-pupil expenditure floor, the amount of supplemental state aid, and their cost to the state.

Option 1 would cost $431 million the first year and $1.7 billion by the sixth year. Over the six-year period, the expenditure floor would increase from $1,940 to $2,795; supplemental aid would increase from $20 per student to $40 per student; and the number of students outside the equity formula would decrease from 33 percent to 2 percent.

Option 2 would cost $357 million the first year and $4 billion by the sixth year. The expenditure floor would remain constant at $1,890; supplemental aid would increase from $20 to $32 per student; and the number of students outside the equity formula would decrease to 5 percent by the sixth year.

Option 3 would cost $207 million the first year and $945 million the sixth year. The expenditure floor would remain constant at $1,890; supplement aid would increase from $20 per student to $23 per student; and the number of students outside the equity formula would decrease from 33 percent to 29 percent by the sixth year.

Winston Power Jr., superintendent of the Highland Park Independent School District and a panel member, said he was disappointed that it refused to recommend one option.

"I felt like our fellow committee members had become knowledgeable and had the intestinal fortitude to make a decision," said Mr. Power. "But I guess we didn't."

Brad Ritter, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, was more blunt. "They ducked," said Mr. Ritter, adding that the teachers' union was opposed to all the options recommended because none provides enough money to cover equity requirements.

Richard Kirkpatrick, superintendent of the Copperas Cove Independent School District and spokesman for a group of property-poor districts that intervened in Edgewood, said his group supported the guaranteed-yield plan devised by the School Finance Working Group. It is an ad hoc coalition of education interests brought together this year by Lieut. Gov. Bill Hobby and state Comptroller Bob Bullock to come up with an alternative plan.

That plan, which the Governor's committee did not consider but sent as an addendum to the legislature, would cost $800 million a year.

Mr. Kirkpatrick said the committee's first and second options could be changed to be acceptable to the property-poor group. But he called the less-expensive third option, supported by the Governor's allies, "chicken bones."

As a hedge against an adverse court ruling, the committee also reviewed and sent to the legislature three funding options that call for redistribution of local revenue, spending caps, and a statewide tax should the higher courts uphold the strict interpretation set out by Judge Clark.

Praise for the committee's work has centered on its student-performance report.

It recommended that the state: extend the school year from 175 days to 190, in increments of 5 days a year; require all students to become proficient in a second language to bolster Texas' ability to be internationally competitive; conduct a study on early-childhood-education needs; continue support for early-childhood programs; provide for8"flexibility" on the 22-student class-size limit; provide $60 million for incentives to school districts improving student performance; and provide $100 million for emergency capital-outlay funds.

"We see it as a renaissance, not a revolution," said Mr. Power, who is chairman of the student-performance subcommittee.

"If we are to be that national and world leader in education to which we aspire, then we must move beyond just equity," the report says. "The system must have equity, adequacy, and quality in full partnership if we are to enjoy the fruits of our vision."

committee did not consider but sent as an addendum to the legislature, would cost $800 million a year.

Mr. Kirkpatrick said the committee's first and second options could be changed to be acceptable to the property-poor group. But he called the less-expensive third option, supported by the Governor's allies, "chicken bones."

As a hedge against an adverse court ruling, the committee also reviewed and sent to the legislature three funding options that call for redistribution of local revenue, spending caps, and a statewide tax should the higher courts uphold the strict interpretation set out by Judge Clark.

Praise for the committee's work has centered on its student-performance report.

It recommended that the state: extend the school year from 175 days to 190, in increments of 5 days a year; require all students to become proficient in a second language to bolster Texas' ability to be internationally competitive; conduct a study on early-childhood-education needs; continue support for early-childhood programs; provide for8"flexibility" on the 22-student class-size limit; provide $60 million for incentives to school districts improving student performance; and provide $100 million for emergency capital-outlay funds.

"We see it as a renaissance, not a revolution," said Mr. Power, who is chairman of the student-performance subcommittee.

"If we are to be that national and world leader in education to which we aspire, then we must move beyond just equity," the report says. "The system must have equity, adequacy, and quality in full partnership if we are to enjoy the fruits of our vision."

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