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Folsom Offers Finance Bill as Ala. Session Nears End

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Although Gov. James E. Folsom Jr. of Alabama has released a detailed version of his plan for paying for court-ordered education reform and making that funding more equitable, observers last week were suggesting it was literally too little and too late.

Not only does the formal legislation unveiled by the Governor this month fail to provide enough revenue for reform, in the view of budget analysts, but it also seems unlikely to win approval before the legislature's regular session ends next month.

Mr. Folsom is still pushing for approval in the regular session. But with only about a dozen days for legislative action remaining, observers expect the issue to go over into a special session slated to begin April 26.

Meanwhile, a vote by the House Rules Committee that could come as early as this week would be the first formal indication of House support for the Governor's education-reform bill since the measure suffered a significant legislative setback last month, when the committee refused to allow floor debate on it. (See Education Week, March 2, 1994.)

The bill has already passed the Senate and the House Ways and Means Committee.

The Democratic Governor's aides are negotiating on the reform bill with the Republican minority in the House and are open to compromise, said Chris Grimshawe, Mr. Folsom's press secretary.

Mr. Grimshawe said the bill may lose its most controversial features: performance-based provisions and family-service centers that would provide medical and other referrals for children.

A state judge last year declared Alabama's schools inadequate and inequitable. The judge has given state officials until Sept. 30 to develop an equitable system.

A Dicey Prospect

The two funding bills introduced this month expand on the plan the Governor outlined in January. (See Education Week, Jan. 19, 1994.)

One of the bills would amend the state constitution to implement the court's equity-funding order. It would require school districts to levy at least 20 mills of ad valorem property tax, as well as other local taxes that would yield the equivalent of another 15 mills of property tax, and would mandate the assessment of property at fair-market value. It also calls for separating the state education budget into funds for K-12 and higher education.

Most of the state's 127 districts would have to raise taxes to meet the 20 mill mandate, a dicey prospect with either the politicians or voters who would have to approve the constitutional amendment.

The other funding measure would change the way state school monies are distributed. It would shift from a system based on student attendance and the number of teachers to one in which formulas take into account each district's characteristics and needs, such as the numbers of students in various grade levels, in special education, and at risk of school failure.

Observers saw a sign of trouble for the Governor's plan in testimony last week by a representative of the Business Council of Alabama, who said that the group could not support the funding bills because they do not go far enough toward comprehensive tax and education-funding reform.

Too Much on the Cart?

But, Mr. Grimshawe argued, "If we put too much on the cart, nobody's going to be able to pull it.''

The Governor's plan raises $166 million a year in new local taxes toward the eventual annual cost of the reform program, estimated at nearly $1 billion. The proposal depends on economic growth for the remainder of the needed funds.

But the state's legislative fiscal office has said repeatedly that the funding plan is inadequate to serve both current and new programs.

Another omen came when the House last week refused to include in the state's $3.3 billion education budget a $100 million "equity fund'' to redistribute money to less wealthy schools.

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