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Split Texas Court Roils Legislative Debate Over Finance

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The Texas Supreme Court, which twice acted with no dissent in ordering the legislature to revamp the state's school-finance system, last week weighed in unexpectedly with a split advisory opinion that observers said now adds to the political struggle facing lawmakers.

The court, an elected body, split largely along party lines in an opinion stating that a new finance system--which must be passed by the legislature by April 1--need not equalize local spending above the constitutionally required "efficient" level.

"Once the legislature provides an efficient system ... it may, so long as efficiency is maintained, authorize local school districts to supplement their educational resources if local property owners approve an additional local property tax," Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips wrote for the majority.

Some observers said the opinion, which was endorsed by all four Republican justices and one Democrat, could hinder leading lawmakers' efforts to provide a level playing field for all of the state's school districts.

But while education groups involved in the finance debate said they were still examining the implications of the court's opinion, many indicated that it would not alter their positions on the issue.

"This doesn't really change anything, it just settles an argument people have had," said Billy D. Walker, executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards. "The job is still as tough as it was.''

The four dissenting justices, however, criticized the stand taken by the majority. Justice Lloyd Doggett wrote that the ruling "muddles the law and meddles in the legislative process."

"The opinion ... constitutes a frantic rush to influence the final stages of current legislative deliberations and will only prolong correction of our inefficient educational system at the expense of the schoolchildren of Texas," Justice Doggett wrote. "The restraint observed by a unified court has become the activism promoted by a majority of a divided one."

Officials spearheading the school-finance legislation scheduled for floor debate in the House last week predicted the court's opinion would have little impact on the basic elements of the plan.

Although the court's opinion advised that a statewide redistribution of local property taxes would be unconstitutional, for example, legislative leaders have already drafted a constitutional amendment and established regional tax districts to cope with that question. (See Education Week, Feb. 27, 1991.)

The position on enrichment taken by the court also may not have major consequences in practice because the wealthy districts that would be most likely to take advantage of it would have to greatly raise their local tax rates--in some cases double them--to supersede the minimum rates in Senate Bill 351 and its House companion measure.

Those involved with the legislation said their main complaint was the court's sudden interference as the issue was nearing a resolution.

"It's clear that they were hearing from some very influencial constituents," said Sonia Hernandez, education director for Gov. Ann W. Richards. "This has distracted people a little bit, but I think we're on the right track."

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