State Journal: Parting shot; Crocodile tears

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For a politician, one of the few benefits to ending your career in elective office is that you get to say what you think without having to consider your re-election campaign.

That appears to be the case with Speaker of the House Gibson Lewis of Texas, who recently proposed a comprehensive, but politically explosive, solution to the state's seemingly insoluble school-finance tangle.

Mr. Lewis, who has been the target of an ethics probe, is leaving the House this year.

Before departing, Mr. Lewis has left on the table an idea that many have discussed but that no major officeholder has dared to openly propose--a massive consolidation program that would cut the number of school districts in the state from more than 1,000 to fewer than 200.

Mr. Lewis's proposal would merge districts within each of the 188 county-based taxing districts that were established by the legislature last year but subsequently struck down by the state supreme court.

The plan also calls for public-school choice and site-based decisionmaking.

Mr. Lewis argued that his plan would achieve greater funding equity while saving an estimated $422 million a year.

In presenting his plan, Mr. Lewis acknowledged that it faced potentially insurmountable opposition. Nevertheless, he said, "of all the plans that have been discussed, this is the simplest, most direct, and best cost-saver.''

Reaction to the plan suggests that consolidation may be as unpopular as the other great unmentionable of Texas finance reform--a state income tax.

The head of a group of low-wealth school districts, for example, said voting for Mr. Lewis's plan would be "political suicide'' for lawmakers. And a lobbyist for the state school-boards association predicted that not a single member of the legislature would back it.

Gov. Robert P. Casey, who has been at odds with Pennsylvania educators this year over his proposed cuts in state aid, has been making some blunt criticisms of his state's education community.

"I mean, Fort Knox is not enough,'' he said last month about districts' demands for more money, adding that educators were crying "crocodile tears'' about the effects of the budget.

More recently, Mr. Casey refused to consider holding off a scheduled cut in the state income tax in order to provide more education funding.

"The education establishment from one end to the other, including higher education, has got to understand we are in a recession, with a capital R,'' he said. "And they've gone on as if it was business as usual.''--H.D.

Vol. 11, Issue 27

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