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WISDOM OF SOLOMON IS NEEDED TO FIGURE OUT SCHOOL EQUITY ISSUES

Where is King Solomon when you need him? It would take someone with at least as much smarts as a Solomon to sort out the education equity issues that have been in Utah's news the past week.

Three seemingly unrelated items have illustrated what kind of challenge is involved in assuring total equity for every Utah schoolchild.Item 1: The continuing flap in the Legislature over the details of the Robin Hood bill passed during the 1992 session.

The bill creates a pool of money that combines a state contribution with "donations" by school districts that have tax bases capable of generating more than the state average in property taxes. The money - about $3 million this year - will then be distributed among those districts whose local tax income is below the state average.

The concept is that the "rich" districts should be willing to cough up a little money to help the districts that can't get the same return on property taxes, even if they try as hard. That's fair if you apply a purely "equity" standard, but for the so-called affluent districts, parting with money is a painful necessity.

The jury is still out on this one. Some rich districts have offered a counterproposal that would change the particulars of the Robin Hood bill so those in debt aren't penalized. How the Legislature will respond won't be known until the 1993 session. But the lesson is clear: To achieve equity, some folks have to give up something.

Item 2: The growing consternation among school officials as the reality of hard-nosed fee waiver mandates hits them. Equity for schoolchildren is at the root of the whole fee issue. The question is: Should a student who can't afford fees be barred from full participation in school?

Third District Judge John Rokich answered the question for everyone in a very definitive manner: No student should have one titch less access to all that school has to offer, based on his ability to pay.

Again, equity comes with a hook. Schools have several options: 1. Raise fees so high that income from the paying students can adequately cover the costs of the non-paying students. 2. Cut programs that rely on fee income to survive. 3. Beg the Legislature to adequately fund education so the fee income doesn't matter so much.

Item 3: Parents at Indian Hills Elementary School, located in an affluent east-side Salt Lake District neighborhood, didn't want to lose two teachers when the school's enrollment fell short of expectations. They dug into their own pockets to pay $46,000 of the teacher salaries. In short order, they had reached and over-reached the goal.

That didn't set well with some of Salt Lake District's west-side schools, where many parents can dig into their pockets and find only lint. The district certainly hasn't heard the last of the issue. The rumblings from the district's poor schools include intimations of a lawsuit to protest educational inequity.

School neighborhoods have traditionally enriched schools to the extent their particular circumstances allow. Schools in rich neighborhoods often have playground amenities, computers and other educational enhancements that schools in poor neighborhoods don't have.

The question that has been brought into clear focus by the Indian Hills events is: Where should districts draw the line on how much private money parents can contribute to their local school before inequity becomes an issue?

The answer in the minds of some of Salt Lake District's have-not schools appears to be that the line should be drawn at hiring faculty. Extra teachers mean smaller class loads - a clear advantage in the educational scheme of things.

Whew! Maybe all's fair in love and war, but what's fair in education is likely to get a whole lot more scrutiny as the battle for finite funds heats up.

Come back, Solomon.