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State Journal: Told you so; Gloomy post-mortem

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State officials in Montana expressed surprise and concern recently after discovering that their school-finance reform law would cost $50 million more over the next three years than they had anticipated.

But local educators had a quick retort to complaints about the unexpected burden on the state budget--"Told you so."

The roots of the current controversy lie in the law passed by the legislature in 1989 in response to a state supreme court decision overturning the existing school-funding system.

The cornerstone of the measure, which sought to reduce disparities between rich and poor districts, was increased state aid to systems with low property wealth.

At the insistence of Gov. Stan Stephens, the measure also set caps on the amount that district spending, and thus state aid, could increase.

The state's initial cost estimates assumed that it would take some time before all districts would rise to their maximum budget levels.

But things have not turned out that way.

The first round of budget reports compiled by the state shows that most districts moved quickly to increase spending as much as they were allowed.

As a result, state aid under the law will rise to $45 million from the earlier estimate of $28.5 million. Over three years, the cost overrun could reach $50 million.

State officials warned that the additional cost would put even more pressure on the overall budget. The leader of a state taxpayers' group, meanwhile, predicted that the legislature would act to curb growth of the program.

But spokesmen for education groups said local schools had to beef up budgets that had been held down in recent years by property-tax limits.

And in any case, they added, educators had made clear all along that that was what they intended to do.

In a post-mortem on his unsuccessful campaign against Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, Speaker of the House Thomas A. Loftus offered a gloomy view of education's standing with the public.

"The scariest thing I found on the whole campaign was the citizen assault on education," the Democratic candidate said.

"There is a tremendous antipathy toward education," added Mr. Loftus, who campaigned on a pledge to curb property- tax hikes while increasing state aid to the schools.

"They blame the local schools [and] that is disastrous for society," he said.--HD

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