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Hawkins Seeks To Even Funding Among Districts

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Washington--The chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee last week unveiled a proposal that would force virtually all states to alter the way their public schools are financed.

The proposed "fair chance act," introduced by Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, Democrat of California, would require states to "equalize" per-pupil funding among their school districts in order to receive federal education aid.

States whose finance systems did not pass muster would have to submit plans to meet the proposed federal standards within five years.

If they did not do so, the Secretary of Education would distribute all federal funds for precollegiate education allocated to those states among their school districts in a way that served to equalize the resources available to each district.

That could result, for example, in a relatively rich district with many handicapped students losing its special-education funding. The poorer district that received it would have to spend the money in accordance with special-education regulations.

The carrot accompanying this big stick would be a new pot of federal funds that the Secretary would distribute to the poorer states in an effort to equalize available resources at the state level. An aide said Mr. Hawkins envisions an appropriation of from $500 million to $1 billion the first year.

States could use the funds to bring their finance systems into compliance with the first part of the legislation.

To back up his charge that gross inequities exist, Mr. Hawkins released a report by the Congressional Research Service, based on 1986-87 Census data, that lists the school districts in each state that spend the most and least per pupil.

In Texas, for example, among districts with at least 500 students, the Jasper Independent School District spends only $1,207 per student; Sundown Independent spends $7,109.

Several school-finance experts interviewed last week lauded Mr. Hawkins's intentions, but questioned the methods and standards he proposed.

"It's not a bad idea to want the states to be equitable," but "I'm not sure you would want the states to meet" the stringent tests included in the legislation, said Kent McGuire, an assistant professor of education at the University of Colorado at Denver.

Others said the federal government should not get involved in the business of equalizing school funding.

"I think it's sort of zany and not very respective of federalism," said John E. Coons, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley.

At a hearing last week, the bill was applauded by finance experts and lawyers who represented plaintiffs in school-finance suits in Kentucky, New Jersey, and Texas.

"The 'fair chance act' would create additional incentives for states to provide what they morally, legally, and prudentially should: equal educational opportunity," said Arthur E. Wise, director of the rand Corporation's center for the study of the teaching profession.

'Far From Perfect'

Education lobbyists and Congressional aides agreed that such a radical proposal will not breeze through the Congress. Mr. Hawkins indicated that he understood that, too.

"This bill is far from perfect," he said. "I don't expect it to pass ... the day after tomorrow."

Added John F. Jennings, Mr. Hawkins's chief education aide: "We're not saying that this is the only approach. We're trying to focus attention on the issue of how much is available to a child in one school district as opposed to another."

Also last week, Mr. Hawkins unveiled the "regulatory impact on student excellence act," which would require the Secretary of Education to study the impact of federal and state regulation on public schools in each state. A hearing on the proposed legislation is scheduled for this week.

The study would identify laws, regulations, and "organizational requirements" imposed since 1980, and assess their impact on "educational practices and available resources at the school district level."

Many observers think the two initiatives are in part a response to calls from state officials and the Bush Administration to relax federal education regulations.

"Yes, I think [states] should get their own house in order," Mr. Hawkins said at a news conference last week. "They're putting on local school districts more regulations than you ever dreamed of."

Michael Casserly, chief lobbyist for the Council of the Great City Schools, said, "This is the ultimate 'put up or shut up' to both the Administration and the states."

Charles E.M. Kolb, the Education Department's deputy undersecretary for planning, budget, and evaluation, said the rise bill is unnecessary, because the department and state officials are already studying the effect of federal regulations.

In response to the equalization proposal, Mr. Kolb said "dictating the distribution of funds within a state" is not an appropriate federal role.

"It may be an equity issue, but it's not a federal issue," he said. "If I were a governor, I wouldn't welcome this."

Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, opposed both the "fair chance act" and rise as usurping state authority in areas where states are acting on their own.

"We agree the disparities are there, and it's an issue that should be addressed, but it's not simply a matter of reallocating resources that are there," Mr. Wilhoit said. "I would think a more cooperative effort where the federal government helps states work through these problems would be welcomed."

Carnie Hayes, director of federal-state relations for the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the council "supports the concept, and will have to look at the exact approach [Mr. Hawkins] takes."

"If it includes equalization between states, it has promise," added North Dakota's schools superintendent, Wayne G. Sanstead, who attended Mr. Hawkins's news conference.

Ronald H. Field, senior committee director for education and training at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the council would not take a position until members had been consulted, but he thinks the proposed standards will probably be viewed as too "restrictive."

"We're not insensitive to the issue, and we certainly wouldn't turn aside federal help to correct the problem," he said, adding: "It's a terribly politically charged issue."

Committee Reaction

At the hearing, most members of the House subcommittee on elementary, secondary, and vocational education lauded the idea cautiously.

"States should not be shortchanging students through less-than-equitable funding structures," said Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee. ''If there's anything we can do to improve the situation, I want to do it; but I want to make sure we know what we're doing."

Representative Thomas E. Petri, Republican of Wisconsin, was the most critical, asking for proof that equalization has improved educational performance in states that have attempted it.

But supporters said unequal funding virtually always results in unequal education.

"Money may not buy excellence, but it buys qualified teachers, quality textbooks, and school equipment that doesn't date from the Korean War," said Representative Matthew G. Martinez, Democrat of California.

Even those who said they support the legislation's aim noted that it raises thorny issues related to data and cost comparability.

Representative Glenn Poshard, Democrat of Illinois, noted that to truly equalize spending, a state would have to prohibit rich districts from spending more than the "equalized" amount per pupil, a politically difficult proposition.

Mr. Hawkins said his legislation would not prevent "extra" spending by some districts, and witnesses disagreed as to whether it should.

The other major point of contention was how the plan would compensate for differential costs incurred by some districts, such as those with many handicapped or disadvantaged children, high transportation costs, or a location where the cost of living is high.

Under the rules Mr. Hawkins proposes to apply, states are allowed, but not required, to create a weighting formula that takes into account differential costs among districts.

"You must be sensitive to the different needs," said Albert H. Kauffman, a lawyer for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "Otherwise, you could cause more problems than you solve."

To determine whether a state's per-pupil spending were equalized, the bill would use regulations developed in 1977 for the impact-aid program, which compensates districts where tax revenue is limited by the presence of federal workers or property.

States are generally not allowed to consider impact aid in calculating state education aid, preventing them from using it to reduce state contributions. However, states may consider impact aid part of a district's local resources for purposes of equalization.

Therefore, the Education Department had to define what an acceptable equalization plan is. The regulations allow states to meet either of two tests.

The first requires that the disparity in per-pupil spending between its poorest and richest districts be no more than 25 percent; the Hawkins bill would lower that to 5 percent.

The second, more complicated test requires that 85 percent of a state's school funds be "wealth neutral," or raised and distributed in such a way that each district receives the same amount from an equal local tax effort. Mr. Hawkins would tighten that requirement to 95 percent.

School-finance experts agreed last week that few, if any, states could meet the proposed standards. The Education Department has approved only seven state plans under the current, less stringent rules.

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