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Unhappily, Texas Returns To School-Finance Class

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SAN ANTONIO--For many Texas lawmakers and policy experts, a national school-finance seminar here served as another unwelcome reminder that the arduous journey they had hoped to have finished must now be traveled all over again.

After spending five legislative sessions in the past two years drafting two separate school-funding systems, Texas officials arrived last month at the meeting sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Education Commission of the States with every right to be cast as seasoned veterans able to help other states tackle their own school-finance problems.

Thanks to a January decision by the Texas Supreme Court overturning the legislature's most recent finance plan, however, the Texans found themselves once more as students searching for the answer to a seemingly impossible policy puzzle. (See Education Week, Feb. 5, 1992.)

The court's decision promises to force yet another legislative session to write a school-funding law and has launched a scramble that has become painfully familiar here.

The degree of enthusiasm with which the Texans are contemplating another ride on the finance-reform roller coaster was perhaps best summed up by Representative Ernestine Glossbrenner, who was asked during a break if she would ever miss coming to meetings on school finance.

"Like a blistered back,'' replied the chairman of the House Public Education Committee.

No 'Magic Pill'

The larger-than-anticipated Texas delegation at the school-finance meeting was noticeably busy. In fact, longtime observers gathered between sessions to trade information on what points of conversation had inspired notetaking by staff members from the legislature, education department, and office of Gov. Ann W. Richards.

"We are still concerned with solving our own problems and came to see if someone had a magic pill,'' Ms. Glossbrenner said. "We want to see if they've tried something we haven't.''

Others, however, said it was doubtful that anyone could surprise the Texans with something new.

"There are no magic bullets. None of this is new to us,'' said Craig Foster, the executive director of the Equity Center, a statewide coalition of low-wealth school districts. "We've been working on this for seven years, and if there was another way, we'd know about it by now.''

Senator Carl A. Parker, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he and his colleagues cannot glean much from other states because Texas's earlier efforts to equalize school spending have put it ahead of many states that are addressing school-finance for the first time.

Moreover, Mr. Parker noted, unique constraints imposed by both the Texas constitution and the supreme court limit lawmakers' options.

"We have catalogued all of the things that are not acceptable, and they include new state revenues, recapture, forced consolidation, property-tax substitution, an income tax, leveling down, and addressing quality issues,'' Mr. Parker said. "The bad news is that our problem is insoluble. The good news is my kids are out of college.''

'Drunks in a Fun House'

As officials grasp for a solution, pressure is building within the state to call a special session and devise a new law as soon as possible. Mr. Parker and other legislators, however, said that no agreement is near.

"The Governor desperately wants to find a solution, and everyone is running around like the sky is falling because the supreme court has put us in the position of collecting an unconstitutional tax that is going to go up 10 cents next year,'' Mr. Parker explained. "I don't have any hope that we can find a solution by July.''

"I've told the Governor that if we gather now, in the current state of consensus, we will look like drunks in a fun house,'' he said.

"Right now, people wish it would all go away,'' Representative Paul Colbert added. "People are extremely upset because they feel like the supreme court pulled the rug out from under them and made the legislature the fall guys.''

Mr. Parker agreed that, since its original unanimous decision, lawmakers are finding it increasingly difficult to make sense of the court's latest directives.

"We don't have a clue where the supreme court is going,'' Senator Parker said. "They are just ducking and dodging politically. They got their macho up for once, and now they are trying to find a way out.''

More Money, But With a Price

As the political debate is renewed in the state capital and at gatherings like the recent seminar here, a clearer view of the impact of finance-reform efforts is visible west of San Antonio's tourist center, in the heavily Hispanic neighborhood that makes up the Edgewood Independent School District.

The district, which is best known for spawning landmark challenges at both the federal and state levels asking for finance reforms that would aid poor school districts, is feeling the policymakers' fits and starts.

"Each of the laws has brought more money to Edgewood, but it has been at a dear price,'' said Earle H. Bolton, a 34-year employee of the district who has risen from mathematics teacher to deputy superintendent.

The law struck down by the supreme court in January had already led to a 22 percent property-tax increase in Edgewood. Under its equalization provisions, however, the district's buying power also rose from the previous $41,000 per penny of tax effort to $300,000.

With an expected $5-million budget increase, the district has broken ground for a $2-million addition at an elementary school. The project will replace 18 portable classrooms, expand the school's library and cafeteria, and provide a gymnasium for the first time.

The district also has used the funds to hire counselors, aides, nurses, and full-time physical-education and fine-arts instructors.

"These are things that other districts have been doing all along, but they are new and exciting to us,'' Mr. Bolton said.

Because of the continuing school-finance uncertainty, the district has put off targeting its new funds on costly classroom changes or teacher-salary increases. Instead, officials have decided to wait for a sign that the state's funding program is on permanent ground.

Still, Mr. Bolton noted, it appears that the issue is moving in the right direction.

"This is the first year since I've been here that we've been able to take our revenues and expenditures and they've evened out,'' Mr. Bolton noted. "We have struggled along for so many years and always had to go into our reserves.''

"The frustrations are still there, but this is routine for us,'' he said. "I am concerned about what the legislature will do. What we're after is a level playing field. If you are going to do that, you've got to pay for it, and if you are going to be a legislator, you've got to make tough decisions.''

"I think the legislature has learned there aren't any easy answers left,'' Mr. Bolton said.

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