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Facing Suit, La. Governor Offers School-Finance Plan

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Facing a new lawsuit calling for more equitable distribution of Louisiana's education dollars, Gov. Edwin W. Edwards last week proposed a $2.5-billion education budget that includes $38.2 million for the first year of a five-year program to revamp the way the state funds public education.

"This is the first step in a major change in the distribution of [education] dollars,'' said Sally Clausen, the Governor's education adviser.

The legislature this year is expected to vote on a new Minimum Foundation Program, which determines how the state distributes education funds. Last year, the legislature put off consideration of similar changes.

Under a plan approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last month, and now being revised according to Mr. Edwards's proposed spending figure before being sent to the legislature, the state over the next five years would increase its funding to low-wealth school districts. Aid to property-rich districts, however, would remain constant.

In his State of the State Address last week, the newly elected Governor indicated that 70 percent of the new money would go toward instructional materials, teacher salaries, and textbooks. At-risk students, pupils in kindergarten through 3rd grade, and vocational students would receive special consideration, he said.

Not Interested in Phase-In

A week before Mr. Edwards introduced his budget, however, 26 school districts and numerous parents and students filed suit against BESE for failing to develop an equitable school-finance program.

The districts were joined by separate suits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Orleans Parish School Board.

Known as the Minimum Foundation Commission, the 26 districts contend that the current school-funding system violates the state constitution by denying children from poorer areas an adequate education.

The plaintiffs are asking Louisiana's 19th Judicial District Court to suspend state education payments and order BESE to create an equitable system of financing. The legislature, Governor Edwards, and the state education department are also named as defendants.

"We're certainly not interested in bankrupting the state, but we want equity,'' said J. Rogers Pope, the superintendent of Livingston Parish Schools and the president of the commission's executive committee.

Because of inadequate state funding of education, districts are required to raise a substantial amount of school revenue from local taxes, the suit maintains.

"Parishes have very disparate tax bases per pupil from which property and sales taxes are levied,'' the suit says. "Although taxpayers in parishes with small tax bases are generally taxed at higher rates than taxpayers in wealthier parishes, the poorer parishes generate substantially less local revenue.''

The suit goes on to say that the new education-financing plan approved by the state board is inadequate. While the plan suggests a five-year phase-in, the state constitution requires an equitable formula to be approved each year, the plaintiffs argue.

"We're not interested in a phase-in program,'' Mr. Pope said. "We've been down for a long time. In the interim, we have no recourse but the courts.''

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