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Senate Panel Backs New Finance Formula in Idaho

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The Education Committee of the Idaho Senate has approved a new education-finance formula aimed at warding off a court challenge to the state's method of funding schools.

Proponents of the measure, approved this month, concede that it is unlikely to survive in its present form in the House.

But they argued that by making a good-faith effort to make the state's school-finance system more equitable, lawmakers are sending a message to the state judicial system that they are serious about avoiding a lengthy legal battle.

Two separate lawsuits have been filed by different groups of school districts charging that there are unconstitutional inequities in the way the state funds public education.

One, filed by 19 large districts, argues that the state's system of distribution is inequitable and denies children access to a uniform and thorough public education. The other, filed by 33 relatively small districts, argues that the state does not make a sufficiently large contribution to education funding.

A state circuit judge has ruled that the suits should be combined into a single complaint because they essentially deal with the same issues.

Idaho currently distributes almost $500 million, or nearly half its general tax revenues, to local districts.

Supporters of the Senate bill admit that the state's present system of taxation would be unable to provide enough revenue to fund the proposed revisions in the formula for distributing school aid.

And opponents of the bill argue that reallocating the existing pool of funds will inevitably lead to reductions in aid to some districts.

Key to the bill, sponsored by Senator John D. Hansen, is a proposal to increase the amount of local property taxes that would flow into the state's public-school fund.

The bill also contains a "guaranteed tax yield" provision aimed at ensuring that all districts receive a minimum, or baseline, level of funding, even if the local tax base is unable to provide such a level.

But local superintendents in rural areas have criticized the provision, arguing that the formula proposed to determine the baseline fails to reflect their higher per-pupil costs.--pw

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