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Ending the Deadlock: Gov. Clements Signs School-Finance Plan

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Gov. William P. Clements Jr. of Texas last week signed a landmark school-finance bill, thus ending a lengthy deadlock with the legislature and averting a court-imposed plan that many educators said would have been disastrous.

The new school-finance law was accompanied by a tax package and an appropriations bill totaling $528 million. All passed the legislature easily and were approved by the Governor June 7.

Mr. Clements's signature brought to a close the legislature's fourth special session held in response to the Texas Supreme Court's decision last October ordering lawmakers to devise a new and more equitable school-funding system.

"The Governor believes this bill more than meets the court's mandate," said his spokesman, Rossanna Salazar.

But the lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case said last week they will challenge the bill, citing several ways it did not meet constitutional muster.

District Judge Scott McCown is scheduled to rule on the constitutionality of the school-finance measure June 25.

The judge need not consider the plan drafted by the court-appointed master, William Kilgarlin. That proposal, released June 1, would have reallocated some $540 million in state aid from wealthy districts to poor ones and required 128 districts to raise $14.1 million in new taxes.

Dallas schools, for example, would have lost more than $98 million in state aid under the plan.

Many urban school officials opposed the master's proposal. "It was draconian," said Margaret La Montagne, chief lobbyist for the Texas Association of School Boards.

Even so, lawmakers and educators said the master had served a useful purpose.

"The role he served was to offer up an alternative that was so bad the legislature and, more importantly, the Governor would be induced to behave well," said Craig Foster, executive director of the Equity Center, a coalition of property-poor districts.

Ernestine V. Glossbrenner, chairman of the House education committee, agreed, while adding that the Governor and lawmakers were already negotiating before the plan was released.

"But I think it's fair to say," she observed, "that the plan had a salutary effect on the willingness of folks to compromise."

Criticism of Bill

The fate of the legislature's plan is now up to the courts. Although the Governor and lawmakers evinced confidence it would be ruled acceptable, others were unsure.

Al Kauffman, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the plan has several drawbacks.

The $528 million it provides in its first year is insufficient, he argued. The plan raises the money through a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax, "sin" taxes on alcohol and tobacco, and other fees.

Mr. Kauffman also criticized the plan for allowing "unequalized enrichment"--the ability of local districts to raise taxes and spend money above a certain level.

The bill does not contain any money for facilities, he added, nor does it calculate student enrollment in an acceptable way.

Several districts that belong to the Equity Center are also party to the suit. Mr. Foster, the center's executive director, said the bill's equity standard is too low.

Essentially, the equity standard determines the degree to which the state equalizes school spending. The Equity Center favors a standard of 95 percent, while the bill's standard is 90 percent.

"June 25th will be the first day of what I guess would be a fairly long trial," Mr. Foster said.

While acknowledging that the bill was not perfect, Ms. Glossbrenner pronounced herself "very pleased" with what she said was a fair compromise.

"You work as hard as you can to get what you want," she said. "Then finally you have to choose between what's possible and what's not. Most responsible people go with what is possible, if it does not too greatly offend their sense of what is right and wrong."

She added she thinks the legislature's plan will satisfy the court.

Other Reforms Included

The new law also mandates several educational reforms unrelated to finance, touching on such issues as accountability and efficiency.

An emergency clause in the bill allows it to take effect immediately.

Among its financial provisions, the measure:

Maintains a two-tier foundation equalization program, with the first tier of funding for basic educational programs and the second for "enrichment."

Changes the "weighting" of several groups of students for which districts receive more money, such as the handicapped or those in need of remedial education.

Sets a guaranteed yield--the amount of money a district is assured per pupil per penny of tax effort--of $18.25 for the first year, and $31 thereafter.

Changes the method of measuring districts' average daily attendance.

Provides at least $4 billion in new funds for equalization and other purposes over five years.

Allows the "equity standard" to be changed in accordance with an accountable-cost study, to be performed after five years.

Other parts of the law provide for:

Establishment of school-based management-training programs for both teachers and administrators.

Appointment by the governor of the commissioner of education, from a list submitted by the state board of education and subject to the approval of the Senate.

Exemption of "exemplary" districts from certain state regulations.

Consolidation of unaccredited school districts, which would be placed under close state supervision.

Implementation, at local option and subject to the availability of funds, of pre-K programs for 3-year-olds.

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