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Va. School-Funding Proposal Irks Suburban Educators

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A Virginia panel's recommendations aimed at closing the funding gap between wealthy and poor school districts in the state have touched off a politically explosive battle pitting legislators and school officials from affluent Washington suburbs against their rural downstate colleagues.

The suggested finance changes would shift up to $85 million over two years from the state's wealthiest school districts to areas where property values and local school revenues are lower.

The proposed revenue shift brought an immediate outcry from Northern Virginia educators, especially from Fairfax County, which stands to absorb more than 75 percent of the total cut.

The proposal won initial support, however, from a group of poor school districts that has threatened to launch a finance-equity lawsuit against the state if funding disparities are not reduced.

But leaders of the group say the plan still does not provide enough new funding and warn they could decide to proceed with their suit if the proposal is scaled back before enactment.

Northern Virginia school officials, on the other hand, said they believe the initial recommendations were made in an effort to head off the lawsuit, rather than to develop a fairer finance system.

"The Robin Hood approach to equity simply creates other kinds of inequity," said Dolores Bohen, assistant superintendent of the Fairfax County schools. "One of the things that makes it so tough is the belief that we're so affluent we can take any kind of cut."

Given the strong objections voiced by Northern Virginia officials, chances are good that the proposal tentatively adopted last month by the Governor's Commission on Educational Opportunity for All Virginians will be modified substantially before becoming law, some school officials said.

Ms. Bohen noted that 111 school districts stand to benefit from the plan, while only a handful will lose substantial funding. Even so, she predicted, there is "no way" the recommendation will prevail.

"It isn't targeted at the districts that have the worst problems," she added.

The panel will not make its final recommendations to Gov. L. Douglas Wilder until February, after which the proposals would have to win approval from the legislature.

Despite the political firestorm the draft recommendations have sparked, the chairman of the commission argues that it is too early to declare winners and losers.

While state aid to some districts would be reduced, other elements of the plan would lead to increases for all districts, said W.L. Lemmon, a former legislator and state school-board member.

"The committee that made those recommendations made them as a package," Mr. Lemmon said. While shifting state aid, the proposals also would raise minimum standards, which would recapture some of the state aid for wealthy districts.

"We would be leveling up, not leveling down," he said. "I tried my best on four occasions to make that point at our last meeting, but I'm not sure it ever got across."

The future distribution of existing levels of state aid has become the focal point of debate because Virginia's tight fiscal situation makes spending increases an unlikely possibility, officials said.

Governor Wilder is expected to introduce a budget-reduction package to the legislature that would meet a projected $1.4-billion revenue shortfall by fiscal 1992. As part of that effort, the Governor has already called for a $173-million reduction in state aid to schools during the biennium. (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1990.)

That effort to hold down spending could collide, however, with the legal strategy of the 40-district Coalition for Equity, which has already retained a former state attorney general as counsel in a potential school-finance case.

"I don't think this problem can be solved without money," said Kenneth E. Walker, superintendent of the Halifax County schools and secretary-treasurer for the coalition.

"We thought the recommendations were a step in the right direction, but we really don't think this goes far enough," Mr. Walker added. "There ought to be an infusion of additional state dollars to try to bring the poor districts up further."

But Mr. Lemmon said the commission's agenda will not be dictated by the tug-of-war over distribution of state aid.

"Let's face it, hackles are going to be raised," he said, noting that no matter the position it takes, the commission is caught between poor schools that are "poised and ready to sue," and wealthy schools that "need and want to protect the status quo."

"What's unfortunate is that it seems those who've been doing the reacting so far haven't read the report," Mr. Lemmon said.

In addition to tilting the state aid formula toward poor schools, the draft recommendations also offer a host of classroom and early-childhood-education reforms aimed atbolstering youths from poor areas.

The commissions draft recommendations would:

Provide more than $100 million in state aid to reduce student-teacher ratios to 20-to-1 in prekindergarten through the 4th grade and hire additional physical-education, music, and art specialists for at-risk youths in primary grades;

Undertake a five-year review of curriculum and accreditation standards that are currently "too minimal";

Establish preschool programs for 4-year-olds supported by public and private sources and offering transportation, child care, and medical services; and

Complement classroom learning through better coordination of health-services programs for students and increased technical assistance and training for teachers.

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