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Plan To Revamp School-Finance System In Louisiana Clears Legislative Hurdle

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A plan to revamp Louisiana's method of funding public schools cleared a significant obstacle last week when a House panel passed a fiscal 1993 spending bill that includes an additional $38.2 million to implement the first year of a finance-equity program.

But efforts to create and fund a new Minimum Foundation Program still face several more hurdles in a state with a projected $100-million deficit.

"We are hearing a new rumor about every four hours on the formula,'' an education-department official said last week, adding, "I will be very surprised if we get a new formula and we get funded.''

The $38.2 million, part of a $2.5-billion education budget proposed by Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, would fund the first step of a five-year effort to equalize school funding between rich and poor school districts.

Under the proposal, 51 of the state's 66 districts would receive additional state aid.

Backers of the equalization plan had worried before the Appropriations Committee voted early last week that the deficit could lead the committee to drop the money from the bill, despite two finance-equity lawsuits pending against the state.

Governor's Lobbying

But Governor Edwards worked hard to persuade Representative Elias (Bo) Ackal Jr., the chairman of the committee, and other panel members to approve the bill. "His heavy lobbying absolutely made the difference, and his directives for me to use his name,'' said Sally Clausen, Mr. Edwards's education adviser.

"I think we crossed a major hurdle,'' Ms. Clausen said. "I'm certainly more comfortable now.''

Governor Edwards, she said, is now focusing on the Senate, where the Minimum Foundation Program resolution is awaiting action.

An aide to Senator Larry Bankston, the resolution's sponsor, said the senator is counting votes and hopes to push the matter to the floor when he is assured of majority support.

J. Rogers Pope, the superintendent of the Livingston Parish schools and the president of one of the groups of districts suing the state, said he was pleased that the new funding formula had made the legislative strides it has.

Mr. Pope also noted, however, that the state constitution requires the legislature to pass a new funding formula every year. So endorsement of the first year of the program does not mean it will have smooth sailing in subsequent years, he said.

"At this point in time we're satisfied,'' Mr. Pope said. "[But] there's no guarantee, so we're looking at this as a one-year deal.''

He said his coalition of 26 districts would not withdraw its lawsuit.

Some of the 15 districts that would not receive any new money under the new formula, meanwhile, have retained legal counsel to try to ensure that finance changes do not serve low-wealth districts at the expense of schools in relatively affluent areas.

Evaluation, Bargaining Bills

Two other major education issues are also receiving considerable attention from lawmakers.

A bill revising the state's teacher-evaluation program has passed the Senate easily and is scheduled to be taken up by the House Education Committee this week.

The bill calls on districts to establish their own evaluation programs based on state guidelines. Local evaluations, which would be subject to state review, would be fully implemented in the 1994-95 academic year.

A statewide evaluation system established by former Gov. Buddy Roemer generated intense opposition from the state's two teachers' unions, leading the legislature last year to order that the program be revamped.

In addition, three bills that would allow teachers to bargain collectively have been passed out of the Senate Education Committee.

The two teachers' unions, the Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, are backing somewhat different collective-bargaining bills.

The L.A.E.-backed bill includes a no-strike clause and mandatory bargaining, while the measure supported by the L.F.T. does not have a no-strike clause and calls for voluntary bargaining. The latter measure also provides for creation of a Public Education Relations Board to handle labor disputes.

A compromise proposal would require the creation of a state board to monitor and set guidelines for arbitration.

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