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Rich School, Poor School

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Rodriguez et al. in 1973, stating that there is no fundamental right to education under the Constitution. But the plaintiffs persevered, pressing their case in the state courts. This fall, after two decades of legal struggles, the poorer students of Texas won their battle. The Texas Supreme Court unanimously declared the state's system of funding schools to be unconstitutional.

The Texas Constitution requires that the Legislature establish, support, and maintain "an efficient system of public free schools,'' the justices stated. "We conclude that, in mandating 'efficiency,' the constitutional framers and ratifiers did not intend a system with such vast disparities as now exist.''

The nine-member court ordered the Legislature to come up with a plan to reduce the wide difference in funding between rich and poor districts in the state, and gave them until May 1 to do so. It offered no advice.

The decision has national implications, according to prominent observers, who say it could influence pending and future school-finance suits in other states and add further momentum to the movement to reduce inequities in education spending. "There is a certain spillover effect'' among state courts in "important cases,'' notes Arthur Wise, an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Texas case and director of the RAND Corporation's Center for the Study of the Teaching Profession.

The Texas ruling came eight months after Montana's highest court struck down that state's school-finance system, and four months after the Kentucky Supreme Court declared the entire state system of precollegiate education unconstitutional. The New Jersey Supreme Court, meanwhile, is expected to rule in coming months on a suit that challenges the state's method of funding schools.

Similar lawsuits are working their way through the courts in Alaska, Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon, and Tennessee.

The ruling in the Texas case, Edgewood v. Kirby, noted that the 300,000 students in the poorest schools have less than 3 percent of the state's property wealth to support their education, while the 300,000 students in the state's richest schools have more than 25 percent of its property wealth.

Thus the rich districts, the court said, can tax low and spend high, while the property-poor districts "must tax high merely to spend low.''

In 1985-86, for example, the state's 100 poorest districts had an average property-tax rate of 74.5 cents per $100 of valuation and spent an average of $2,978 per student. The 100 wealthiest districts, on the other hand, had an average tax rate of 47 cents and spent $7,233 per student.

"Property-poor districts are trapped in a cycle of poverty from which there is no opportunity to free themselves,'' the 15-page opinion states.

The ruling was met with nearly universal approval by state officials, lawmakers, and education lobbyists. "We're elated,'' says Brad Ritter, director of communications for the Texas State Teachers Association. "Over all, the impact will be very positive for teachers in the state.''

It was even popular with many state officials who were named as defendants in the case. For example, William Kirby, the state's commissioner of education and the first-named defendant, said that although he was "required to defend the constitutionality of the system,'' he has "always maintained that it is inadequate.''

Amid all the agreement, however, were stirrings of debate. The Legislature must now address vexing questions, including whether the new system will require new taxes, how much time the state will have to implement the new program, and what method of funding will best meet the court's mandate. Although the court's decision explicitly did not order the state to raise taxes, many in the Legislature and the education community say they think new levies are a virtual certainty.

Gov. William Clements, however, was unwilling to say new taxes were necessary. "Money itself is not the answer to quality education,'' he says.

The Governor wasted no time in calling for the creation of a task force to study the finance issue and make recommendations to the Legislature. But many scoffed at the idea. "I don't think this problem needs more study,'' says Al Kauffman, one of the lawyers for the 67 property-poor districts and 14 families that filed the suit. "It has been studied tremendously now for the past 20 years.''

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