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State Journal: Both a defender and a critic

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Senator Carl A. Parker, the chief legislative author of Texas's new school-finance-reform law, lately has emerged as both a defender and a critic of the key mechanism it uses to achieve greater funding equity.

The reform law established county-based education districts to redistribute local property-tax funds between rich and poor school districts.

The regional taxing districts are seen by some observers as being at risk before the state supreme court, which recently heard arguments in a lawsuit brought by several wealthy school districts challenging the law.

The wealthy districts have argued that the county education districts, which mandate minimum property-tax levels, in fact amount to a statewide property tax, which is barred by the Texas Constitution. That sentiment apparently has some support among the nine member court, which has twice ruled unanimously against the existing finance system but has split before on questions of funding schemes.

Lawyers defending the state system suggested after the recent hearing that the court may split once again.

With that possibility looming, Senator Parker fired off a pointed letter to Gov. Ann W. Richards saying that state lawmakers, after two years of deliberations, essentially have reached the end of their political rope as far as school finance reforms are concerned.

If the court once again strikes down the system, he warned, it will be the judicial system, not the legislature, that will have to decide between the politically explosive alternatives that remain--higher taxes or a new wave of school consolidation.

"It would be far better for the court to meet its own mandates," Mr. Parker said in asking the Governor not to call a special legislative session.

Still, Mr. Parker's strong defense should not be mistaken for contentment with the new county districts.

In recent remarks in the State Capitol, he criticized the duplication of taxing districts, saying the redundant administration of taxing authorities costs school districts $60 million a year.

A recent statewide survey noted that districts will pay about $4 million this year to run the county education districts.

In an earlier interview on the Texas school-finance law, Senator Parker had called the establishment of county education districts "kind of silly."

"It would have made more sense for us to collect a property tax statewide," he said. "But in Texas, local control is the watchword of inefficiency ... so we have 188 more bureaucracies collecting taxes."


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