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Texas Lawmakers Tackle Governor's Education Bill

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After months of being preoccupied with school finance, the Texas legislature has begun work on a bill that Gov. Ann W. Richards says will give taxpayers "their money's worth" in the classroom.

The Governor's education package, before the Senate Education Committee last week, would implement school-based management councils, provide cash incentives for school performance, and establish what Ms. Richards called a "swat team" of teachers and administrators to assist underachieving districts.

Consideration of the school-improvement measure has accounted for only a portion, however, of the fallout in the Lone Star State since the legislature last month passed a massive, court-ordered restructuring of the school-finance system.

Perhaps most ominously for sponsors of the controversial plan, the state education agency has estimated that the finance bill could mean $2.1 billion in local tax increases over the next two years--more than five times the cost cited during debate on the bill.

Meanwhile, as school districts anticipate resources s budgets and lawyers scrutinize the plan's effects and mull possible new court challenges, some lawmakers continue to explore school-finance alternatives--including a constitutional amendment that would take away the legal grounds for striking down the previous funding system.

For Ms. Richards, the time has come for state leaders to move beyond money issues and begin focusing on what goes on in the classroom.

"After all is said and done, most people know just one thing--that we spend a lot of money on education in Texas," she said, calling her bill "the opening shot in the revolution that will transform this state over the next decade."

Still Fixed on Finance

But many eyes remain fixed on finance.

Lieut. Gov. Bob Bullock has used the bill's cost in an effort to prompt state tax reforms, including creation of the state's first income tax.

Responding to a request from Mr. Bullock, the Texas Education Agency estimated recently that, over its full five-year span, the finance bill could increase local taxes by $8.3 billion and state taxes by another $7.6 billion--a total of $2 billion more than an earlier version of the plan that passed the Senate but was rejected by the House.

Looking at the measure another way--over only four years, and based on its minimum possible cost--another tea analysis estimated local tax increases at $2.3 billion.

In a related arena, a pair of wealthy school districts have cleared a Dallas lawyer to file suit in state court challenging the funding bill. The lawyer, Robert E. Luna, said that several more districts may join in the lawsuit, which challenges the finance plan's establishment of taxing districts that will redistribute some local revenue from wealthy districts to poorer ones.

In a 1931 ruling, the Texas supreme court declared that a school district could not be required to use local funds to support other districts.

Wealthy districts decided to press the issue after learning that the new plan could cost them tens of millions of dollars each year, Mr. Luna said. He plans to file the suit this week.

"These districts will be attempting to maintain standards of excellence they have achieved and the community has come to expect while at the same time losing millions of dollars in state revenue," he said. ''A lot of taxpayers believe that this is a state school system and that state tax revenue should fund this issue."

But Representative John Culberson, who argues that the new finance law will rob districts of local control and force massive tax increases, is pursuing a different strategy.

Mr. Culberson is sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would require the state to provide an "equal educational opportunity" to all students, but would allow the legislature to determine spending levels.

The amendment would drop current language directing the legislature to provide an "efficient" education--the basis for court rulings against the previous funding system.

"We are all committed to giving every child in Texas a quality education, but that is a separate issue," Mr. Culberson said. "This debate is over taxes and whether the legislature will surrender the right of our voters to hold us accountable for tax increases."

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