States struggle to reform schools


Lawsuits piling up across USA

By Maria Puente USA Today

Millions of students head back to school this week, while their elders struggle with a perennial question: Who's going to pay for their education?

In Michigan last week, Gov. John Engler signed a new state law eliminating property taxes as a funding source for public schools starting in 1994.

Now, legislators there have until next fall to figure out where to find the S6 billion needed to keep schools open.

Among the options: Raise income taxes, sales taxes or create a school tax.

"They drank the hemlock ... now the question is, 'Does someone have an antidote nearby?' ~ asks Denver school consultant John Augenblick.

Teacher unions are furious.

"To create that kind of uncertainty is unbelievably irresponsible," fumes Bella Rosenberg of the American Federation of Teachers.

Michigan isn't alone when it comes to controversy over public school financing. Around the country, lawsuits over inequities in spending among districts are piling up.

In the past two decades, at least 30 states have been taken to court over their school 1nancing systems. So tar, 13 states have seen their systems struck down as unconstitutional because of inequities in spending among districts.

The problem is getting worse because of a collision of factors: As operating costs, tax rates and student population increase, local economies, property values and the percentage of people with children in schools is decreasing.

Still, "the state courts are saying ... kids anywhere in a state have the right to the same treatment and opportunities, no matter which district they're in," says Augenblick.

There are people who argue performance doesn't depend on money. But that hasn't stopped the lawsuits:

In Texas, prohibited by its constitution from enacting a state income tax or state property tax, voters rejected a plan - known as "Robin Hood" - to reduce inequities by forcing property-rich districts to share their wealth with property poor districts.

Now, the Legislature has a new scheme that would let rich districts choose among five op. lions to share their wealth with poor districts. Some residents will go to the polls Saturday to choose their options. But there still are objections Ram all sides, and the plan could be rejected by the court this tall.

In New Jersey, the state Supreme Court struck down its system in 1990, ordering that the 30 poorest, urban districts get as much funding as the surrounding suburban districts.

But the cost to do that exceeds the state's resources. Various proposals have been rejected until a special commission reports to the Legislature this fall.

Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Kansas recently adopted what's known as "recapture" systems of financing.

Under a uniform statewide property tax rate, each district is entitled to certain levels of funding If property-rich districts raise more, the excess is collected by the state and placed in the general fund.

"But some areas of Kansas are threatening to secede over this," says Augenblick

California may throw out its entire system-an idea that could spread across the nation just as California's tax revolt spread in the 1970s.

Voters decide in November whether to approve a measure which would give parents vouchers for $2,600 per child annually, to use for tuition at any private school, including religious schools. Also, anyone with 25 students could start a school with voucher money.

Conservative backers of the measure say public schools are so bad they must be forced to compete with private schools. Opponents-especially teacher unions-fear public schools will be destroyed and taxpayers will be forced to subsidize any alternative school.

"We have just as much right as Christians to start our own school" says Debbie Babcock, spokeswoman for the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Pagan Association, which plans to start a school for witches' children if the measure passes "We pay our taxes, we don't just sit around and cast spells all day." One state where reform is working is Kentucky, ordered to recreate its educational system in 1990. So far, no one has challenged the new system.

Each district gets a base level of funding. Wealthier districts can raise up to 15% more and the state makes up the difference to the poorer districts.

"Kentucky is a possible model, the first out of the gate," says Rosenberg "We expect more themes and variations within that model.''