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Texas Raises School Aid $450 Million, But State Court May Have Last Word

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Texas legislators last week revamped the school-funding formula being scrutinized by the state supreme court, but fell far short of providing the long-term financial commitment demanded by property-poor school districts.

Lawmakers adjourned their 1989 regular session on May 29 after appropriating $10.5 billion for public education in the next biennium, a $450-million increase over current spending. Districts challenging the finance system had sought an increase of $5 billion, or 50 percent, over the next six years.

"Now the situation is such we are almost fully dependent on the outcome of the lawsuit," said Craig Foster, executive director of the Equity Center, which represents the 200 districts that brought the suit against the state.

The funding issue overshadowed all other education topics facing Texas lawmakers this year.

A state district judge declared the current system unconstitutional in 1987, but his ruling was overturned by the state court of appeals. The case is now pending before the supreme court.

Legislators had hoped that changes in the funding formula would make the case moot, but key lawmakers conceded last week that such a solution was doubtful.

"The change is more cosmetic than actual," said Representative Paul Colbert, chairman of the House subcommittee on school finance. "What we did this session will not improve our case with the court."

Lawmakers modified the "guar4anteed yield" formula to steer more money to property-poor districts, said Representative Ernestine Glossbrenner, chairman of the House education committee.

She said 79 percent of the new education funds would go to districts of below-average wealth, and 21 percent to districts of above-average wealth.

"The formula is designed to send money to property-poor districts and to children with special needs," she said. "I think the formula would work real well if we had more money to put into it. That's the biggest problem with it."

Education Turf Battle

State officials said the fiercest political fight during the session was not among lawmakers, but rather among education interest groups that battled each other for a larger share of the budget pie.

Winston Power Jr., superintendent of Highland Park school district in Dallas and a member of a blue-ribbon panel that studied the finance issue, said the internecine warfare cost public schools money.

At one point during the session, it appeared that precollegiate education was certain to receive a $650-million increase. Lawmakers, however, shifted about a third of that amount to other areas of the budget while the education groups fought among themselves, Mr. Power said.

"I can't look at this bill and see any group that can take great pride and joy," he said. "We as educators couldn't come together. That's the kind of thing that destroys us."

Representative Colbert, a Democrat from Houston, said he was ex8tremely frustrated with the education community.

"I can't tell you how frustrating it is to get agreements and then have them start playing backroom games," he said last week.

Mr. Colbert singled out the Texas School Boards Association, which he said was "willing to do anything to fight off pay raises for teachers." Jim Crow, the association's lobbyist, was unavailable for comment.

The school boards' group, the state administrators' association, and the Texas Association of Community Schools--which represents 800 districts that each have only one high school--rallied around a funding formula sponsored by Representative Jim Rudd, the House budget chairman.

Diversion of Funds

According to Mr. Foster of the Equity Center, Mr. Rudd's bill would have diverted state funds from districts with high taxes and high costs to those in suburban and wealthy rural areas with low taxes and low costs.

The House voted to adopt Mr. Rudd's plan. A bill by the chamber's education committee was backed by the Equity Center, urban districts, and teachers' unions.

A third plan offered by Senator Carl Parker and approved by the Senate would have provided more equity in the distribution of state aid, but did not include teacher-salary increases and other coalition-building items included in the House education panel's bill.

The two-year finance-reform plan hammered out in a conference committee included raises for teachers and retained the existing formula's price-differential index. Under the measure, pay for beginning teachers will increase from $15,200 to $17,000.

"I don't think anyone is fully satisfied with the compromise," said Jon Tate, associate director of the Texas Association of Community Schools. Mr. Tate said many members of his association are also property-poor districts.

"It is too early to tell if the bill dealt with equity or teachers' salaries," he continued. "Most administrators we've talked to feel fortunate if they get enough money for the salaries that were passed on."

Representative Glossbrenner predicted that the legislature would be forced to raise taxes in its next biennial session in order to provide adequate funding for education, the state prison system, and mental-health programs.

"Part of the reason for turning down a six-year [school-finance formula] was it would force a tax increase," she said. "The truth is we're going to face a tax increase anyway."

Other Action

In other action, the legislature:

Authorized the state to issue $750 million in bonds to finance4school-construction projects.

Voted to deny drivers' licenses to students who drop out before they reach age 18.

Earmarked $10 million for reforms sought by Gov. William P. Clements, including financial rewards for districts that improve student achievement. The Governor had requested $80 million for his proposals.

Passed a measure making teachers' college transcripts private.

Raised the state's compulsory-attendance age from 16 to 17.

Eliminated the state's criterion-referenced test for 1st graders, and expanded testing in other grades to cover social studies and science.

Raised funding for the state's career ladder for teachers from $70 to $90, based on average daily attendance, and allowed districts to tighten career-ladder requirements.

Ms. Glossbrenner said that by the time the legislature adjourned, 16 different school-finance options, complete with the projected impact on the state's 1,032 districts, had been run through the state's computers.

"God knows how many trees gave up their lives so we could get a public-education bill," she said.

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