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School districts in Mississippi will be required to levy a minimum level of property taxes to support education, under a bill signed by Gov. Raymond Mabus last week.

The "equity funding" bill--the most controversial education measure debated in this year's session--was approved by the state Senate in late March by a vote of 46 to 2. The House later voted 95 to 24 to pass the bill.

The new law, which takes effect in July 1990, "strikes at the heart of the problem of trying to fund education" in Mississippi, said Senator Irb Benjamin, who shepherded it on the Senate floor.

The measure requires districts to levy a "floating millage" for two years that is sufficient to raise $418 per student. The rates will vary among communities depending on their property values.

The legislature will review the program in 1992 and decide whether to maintain districts' varying millages or establish a statewide standard.

Districts that levy the required millage but are still unable to generate the required per-pupil amount would remain eligible for state assistance.

Lawmakers estimate that it will cost the state some $17 million to compensate those districts.

Critics of the bill pointed out, however, that the legislature has yet to provide a means for the state to raise those funds.

"This is a simple, hardcore education bill," said Representative Harry Bryan. "We simply should not do this unless there is money for it."

But supporters of the measure said the state can afford to wait until the legislature's 1990 session to hammer out a revenue source.

The legislature had rejected previous equity-funding bills over the past five years.

Observers said the concept's approval this year was due in part to support from the state education department and Mr. Mabus.

--pw

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