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School Financing In Texas Is Ruled Unconstitutional

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In a decision with national implications, the Texas Supreme Court last week unanimously declared the state's method of funding public education unconstitutional.

The legislature must "take immediate action" to craft a plan to reduce the current wide disparities in funding between rich and poor districts, the court said, setting a May 1 deadline.

In response to the decision, Gov. William P. Clements called for a special session of the legislature to convene next spring.

Prominent school-finance experts said the decision could influence pending and future finance suits in other states and add further momentum to the movement to reduce inequities in school spending.

The Texas ruling comes eight months after Montana's highest court struck down that state's school-finance system, and four months after the Kentucky Supreme Court declared its state's entire system of precollegiate education unconstitutional. The New Jersey Supreme Court, meanwhile, is expected to rule in coming months in a suit challenging the state's school-funding method.

Similar lawsuits also are working their way through the courts in Alaska, Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon, and Tennessee.

The Oct. 2 ruling in the Texas case, Edgewood v. Kirby, was met with a nearly universal welcome from state officials, lawmakers, and education lobbyists.

Those leaders have already begun to disagree, however, on what to do next.

Mr. Clements has called for the creation of a task force, which would hold public hearings and make recommendations to the legislature. But many others involved in the issue argue that it has already been studied more than enough.

Groups such as the Texas Research League, a nonpartisan, business-backed think tank, have begun to put forward their own school-finance proposals in response to the ruling.

More Than a 'Band-Aid'

Although the court's unanimity was a surprise to some observers, the content of the decision had been widely expected.

"We felt we had a very good chance," said Al Kauffman, a lawyer for the 67 property-poor school districts and 14 families who were the plaintiffs in the case. "Still, the unanimous decision was overpowering."

The court found "glaring disparities" among rich and poor districts in terms of their ability to raise and spend funds for education. Because the state constitution requires the legislature to establish, support, and maintain "an efficient system of public free schools," the justices ruled that the current aid system was unconstitutional.

"Property-poor districts are trapped in a cycle of poverty from which there is no opportunity to free themselves," wrote Chief Justice Oscar H. Mauzy in the 15-page opinion.

School districts must have "substantially equal access to similar revenues per pupil at similar levels of tax effort," the court concluded.

While the court emphasized that "a Band-Aid will not suffice" and ordered the legislature to revamp the entire system, it offered no suggestions on how to do so.

"We do not now instruct the legislature as to the specifics of the legislation it should enact," Justice Mauzy wrote. "The legislature has primary responsibility to decide how best to achieve an efficient system."

The justices remanded the case to state District Judge Harley Clark, who will have the authority to determine whether the plan adopted by lawmakers remedies the inequalities among districts.

Spillover Effect?

Arthur E. Wise, an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the case and director of the rand Corporation's Center for the Study of the Teaching Profession, said the Texas ruling could affect the outcome of the handful of school-finance suits now pending in other states.

There is "a certain spillover effect" among state courts in "important cases," he noted.

"In some ways, this is symbolically more important than the Kentucky case," said Mr. Wise, referring to the June ruling in which that state's supreme court struck down "the whole gamut" of its educational system. (See Education Week, June 14, 1989.)

Mr. Wise pointed out that the Texas lawsuit traces its history to San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, a case tried in the federal courts that produced one of the seminal rulings in school-finance law.

In Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1973 that disparities in school spending among districts do not violate the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause because education is not a "fundamental right'' guaranteed by the Constitution.

The Texas court's decision "effectively negates Rodriguez, at least for Texas," Mr. Wise said.

John E. Coons, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, praised the decision as a "moderate solution."

"It doesn't try to wreck the system," he added, "it tries to perfect it."

Mr. Coons, who participated in Serrano v. Priest, the ground-breaking 1971 case that overturned California's school-finance system, said the ruling "may set a good example for other states."

"This is a signal to other jurisdictions that this can be done in an intelligent way, without destroying local control and without the judiciary overreaching," he added.

But Mark G. Yudof, dean of the University of Texas School of Law, said it was "hard to predict" what impact the Edgewood decision would have on suits in other states.

"It all depends on how the [Texas] legislature responds," he said. "That legislative plan could be a model for other states."

Praise from Defendants

The court's ruling was popular not only with the plaintiffs, but also with the defendants.

Commissioner of Education William N. Kirby, the first-named defendant, said in a statement that, although he was "required to defend the constitutionality of the system," he has "always maintained that it is not adequate."

Mr. Kirby added that he was "pleased that we finally have a decision."

Other defendants also expressed satisfaction. State Comptroller Bob Bullock called the decision "good news," while Attorney General Jim Mattox said through a spokesman that he was personally pleased with the judgment.

The court has "finally settled this issue," said Craig Foster, executive director of the Equity Center, which represents a group of low-wealth districts in the case. "The 9-to-0 decision says, 'Don't come back to us with this,"' he added.

And spokesmen for such groups as the Texas State Teachers Association, the Texas Association of Community Schools, and the Texas Association of School Boards said they were happy with the ruling.

"We're elated," said Brad Ritter, director of communications for the teachers' association. "Overall, the impact will be very positive for teachers in the state."

Debate Begins

Amid so much agreement, however, the beginnings of a debate were emerging last week.

The legislature must now address several vexing questions, including whether the new system will require new taxes, how much time the state will have to implement the new program, and what method of funding will best meet the court's mandate.

Although the court's decision explicitly did not order the state to raise taxes, many in the legislature and education community said they think new levies are a virtual certainty.

Margaret La Montagne, director of governmental relations for the state school boards' association, said "additional revenue from the state" must be "a major part of the response to this decision."

Representative Ernestine Gloss-brenner, chairman of the House education committee, said those new revenues would probably have to come from new taxes. "I frankly don't see any other way," she said.

But others did. "I think it can be done without raising taxes," at least on the state level, said Winston Power Jr., superintendent of the affluent Highland Park district in Dallas and a former member of a state task force on school finance.

Mr. Clements was also unwilling to say new taxes were necessary. "Money itself is not the answer to quality education," he said at a press conference after the decision was announced.

The Governor's call for the creation of a task force drew sharp criticism from legislators and others. Mr. Clements asked Lieut. Gov. William P. Hobby and Speaker of the House Gibson Lewis to join him in naming the committee's members.

"Why form another task force?" asked Representative Paul Colbert, chairman of the House subcommittee on school finance. "Why? We've had several statewide task forces already."

"I don't think this problem needs more study," Mr. Kauffman said. ''It has been studied tremendously now for the past 20 years."

Another matter of concern to lawmakers and lawyers was whether the court intended to give the state time to "phase in" its solution to the problem. "The court is totally silent" on the issue, Mr. Yudof noted.

Mr. Colbert said he thought the legislature would need several years to implement a plan.

Many Proposals

When it considers the issue next year, the legislature is not likely to suffer for lack of suggestions on what to do.

The Texas Research League, for example, has suggested redrawing school districts along county lines.

That idea has drawn criticism from rural educators, however. Joe Seale, executive director of the community schools' association, cautioned that such a plan could damage "the roots of communities in this state, which are the local schools."

The Equity Center plans to unveil its plan for school-finance reform next month, Mr. Foster said. The proposal probably will call for a "power equalization" formula, in which the state would set a floor for per-pupil funding and help poorer districts reach it with state funds, he explained.

But for such a plan to be successful, Mr. Foster added, it would be ''terribly important to get the legislature to set the [minimum] funding at a level that will truly provide a high-quality education."

Another suggestion, mentioned by Richard E. Gray, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, was to "create larger school districts for finance purposes only."

Mr. Colbert said, however, that he thought such a plan could cause "fairly nightmarish logistical and political problems."

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