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Tex. Lawmakers Await Delayed School-Finance Ruling

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As the Texas legislature convened its biennial session last week, lawmakers were still in the dark about how the state supreme court will rule on the school-finance system they passed in 1993.

Lawyers argued the state's appeal before the court last May, anticipating that a ruling would be issued in time to set the stage for this year's legislative session. The timing of the decision, however, quickly became a touchy political issue. First, it was put off until after the governor's race was decided in November. Now, a political shift on the court itself has caused further delay.

Observers said last week that they expect it will be a few more weeks before a ruling is handed down. In the November elections, the vacant seat of Democrat Lloyd Doggett, now a U.S. representative, was won by a Republican, shifting the court to a Republican majority.

Judge Priscilla Owen of Houston, the new G.O.P. member, is now expected to take some time to review the ruling that had been drafted, and the court may strengthen sections where the Republican judges already commanded a majority.

The court is focusing on a narrow set of issues: whether the existing $600-per-pupil spending gap between the richest and poorest districts translates to an unconstitutional inequity, whether the state must address inequities in spending on facilities, and whether the wealth-sharing measures adopted by the legislature to shift local property taxes from wealthy to poor districts pass constitutional muster.

State officials and litigants speculating on the significance of the court's delay suggest that Judge Owen's presence may increase the likelihood that the court will allow the $600 spending gap to stand--something that advocates for poor districts had already expected.

The changing circumstances will also result in the opinion's being issued without the input of Mr. Doggett, who had written a strong dissent on the equity question, according to advocates for poor school districts.

Longtime participants in the Texas school-finance saga said last week that they were unsure of what to expect next.

Waiting and Speculating

"It is a possibility that they could go beyond the question of equity now and allow some of the wealthy districts to raise more money and regain some of their edge," said Craig Foster, the executive director of the Equity Center, an Austin-based coalition of 316 Texas school districts.

Some observers predicted that the court would force lawmakers to overhaul the way they pay for building schools. The court may also strike down one or more of five options well-off districts were given for sharing wealth. The law provides that the sharing system would continue with the remaining options if that happened.

Regardless of its specifics, the decision will likely frame the upcoming debate over school funding, which will be a priority for state officials after the hoopla of Governor-elect George W. Bush's inauguration this week.

Mr. Bush, a Republican businessman, criticized Democratic Gov. Ann W. Richards during the campaign for her handling of the school-finance issue since the state supreme court ruled unanimously in 1989 that inequities between districts across the state were unconstitutional. (See Education Week, 06/09/93.)

Mr. Bush argued during the campaign that lawmakers should pass a new finance system and fund it before considering any other spending priorities. Political analysts, noting that lawmakers had been unable to agree on the current system until judicial pressure created a tense atmosphere, speculated that the high court's verdict may prompt Mr. Bush to recast his position.

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