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State Journal: A flurry of ominous auguries

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Texas lawmakers are gearing up for a new assault on their seemingly insurmountable school-finance problems, and a flurry of warnings this summer from key players on the issue suggests it will be hard going indeed.

The warnings, which seek to set the ground rules for an anticipated fall special session to adopt a new funding plan, have served primarily to increase the tension in the state capital surrounding the already volatile issue.

First came word from Gov. Ann W. Richards, Lieut. Gov. Bob Bullock, and Speaker of the House Gibson D. Lewis that school districts should not expect any state-aid increases in the next two fiscal years.

Further, the leaders discouraged local administrators from raising property-tax rates as well, explaining that the state's citizenry was not willing to pay more for its schools.

The leaders said the growing grassroots support for austerity will mean that the $3 billion in new school funding officials had agreed to budget is no longer on the table.

"We do not have an endless supply of tax dollars from the hard-working people of this state,'' Governor Richards contended, to the almost uniform chagrin of the state's education associations.

Education leaders quickly rallied to denounce the announcement as a disappointing retreat from Ms. Richard's campaign vision of a "New Texas.''

An even more ominous augury came when a state judge made clear that he will close the state's schools and enjoin all state and local funds if lawmakers do not meet a June 1993 deadline for devising a new, more equitable school-finance system.

"At this juncture, why not just shut the schools down?'' District Judge Scott McCown asked last month. "At this point, who cares anymore?''

Judge McCown denied a request to appoint a court master to draft a plan in case lawmakers cannot agree.

Taken together, the summer's political positioning seems to have left lawmakers in a squeeze as they take their third stab at writing a school-finance law that passes constitutional muster.

Officials have pointed out that the only ways to equalize spending between wealthy and poor schools without new funding would be either to transfer wealthy districts' funds to poorer schools or to consolidate many of the state's 1,000-plus districts.

Alternatively, state voters could amend the constitution so that the courts would have to accept whatever solution lawmakers proposed.

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