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Hearings Explore Federal Role in Finance Equity

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WASHINGTON--A Senate panel last week dipped its toe in the politically treacherous waters of state school-finance equity, an issue that could make waves during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The hearing, the first in a series by the Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities, was largely devoted to schooling members about the complex issues involved in trying to reduce the wide funding gaps that exist in many states between schools in wealthy and poor areas. But the fact that the hearing took place was an important indication of growing Congressional interest in the topic.

Courts in Kentucky, Texas, New Jersey, and other states in recent years have struck down existing finance systems and forced legislatures to come up with new methods of attacking school-spending disparities.

Until now, however, federal involvement in the issue has been limited, although former Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, proposed a few years ago that federal funding be used essentially to force states to achieve equalization.

While that approach would be politically explosive--and federal equalization funding on a significant scale prohibitively expensive--senators at the hearing expressed interest in exploring a possible federal role in equalization, either as part of the E.S.E.A. reauthorization or as separate legislation.

In its draft of the E.S.E.A. reauthorization, the Clinton Administration is planning to address equalization by providing technical assistance to states and school districts interested in the topic. (See related story, page 1.)

One prominent witness to appear before the subcommittee was Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, who asked Congress to impose a national value-added tax, or VAT, that would provide resources to support equalization efforts.

Governor Romer also made clear, however, that the federal government should not control the purse strings of the new revenue.

Instead, he said, Washington could set the criteria by which states would qualify for the money, which could then be distributed by an independent commission not subject to the Congressional appropriations process.

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