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Texas Senate Passes $5-Billion Finance-Reform Bill

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The Texas Senate last week approved a $5-billion plan to reform the state's school-finance system.

The bill, which passed by a 22-to-9 vote, calls for $1.3 billion in new money in its first year of implementation. The remaining funds would be spent over the next two years.

The House, meanwhile, was debating last week a school-finance bill that calls for $450 million in new funds in its first year.

As of late last week, more than 100 amendments to the measure were still pending. But Speaker of the House Gib Lewis intended to take a vote on the legislation by March 23, according to an aide to the House education committee. If it passes, a conference committee would begin reconciling the two bills this week, the aide said.

Both chambers appeared to be ignoring a veto threat from Gov. William P. Clements Jr., who has vowed to reject any bill that calls for more than $300 million in its first year--including, he said last week, the Senate's plan.

Mr. Clements was not alone in his disappointment with the bill, however.

Although he voted for the bill, Senator Hector Uribe predicted it would not pass "constitutional muster."

Mr. Uribe said the bill includes enough money, but does not provide for equalization of tax effort. Poorer districts will still have to levy taxes at a higher rate than wealthy districts, he said, to get the same amount of revenue.

Craig Foster, executive director of the Equity Center, agreed. "The House bill has substantially less money in it, but it has the standards we've been calling for all along," he said.

The Equity Center, a coalition of low-wealth districts, has endorsed an "equity standard" of 95 percent, under which that proportion of students would have equal access to 95 percent of per-pupil revenues.

The Senate bill does not have such a provision. It raises the basic student allotment from $1,477 to $1,910, at a local property tax of 54 cents per $100 valuation. It also guarantees districts an additional $22 per "weighted" student for each additional cent of the tax rate, up to a total of $1.01 per $100.

The Senate bill also adds $45 million this year to compensate for unexpected enrollment growth; provides $9.1 million for drug education; and allows the education commissioner either to annex an unaccredited district to a neighboring one or to assign it to a state-selected management team.

The legislature is under court order to pass a new school-finance plan by May 1.--mn

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