THE OLD problem of how to combat inequities in public school financing -- a problem now gaining attention again after a 20-year hiatus -- hit Texas on Friday with full force. That was the day a court-appointed master was to take official control of the Texas school system unless the governor and the state legislature, frantically negotiating, could agree on a school finance equalization plan and a way to pay for it. They made the deadline, barely -- coming in under the wire with a package of reforms that the court and both houses must still approve -- but for the moment the schools hang in legal limbo, their budgets frozen, facing the threat of more drastic restructuring if the deal falls through.

A year ago, a judge ruled this state school system unconstitutional, citing per-pupil spending that ranged from $2,112 to $19,333 a year. It ordered the legislature to pass a plan, but four plans in three special sessions on education foundered on funding; Republican Gov. Bill Clements vetoed two. The vetoes, inevitably twined with politics in this primary season, superficially turn on the governor's opposition to a half-cent increase in the state sales tax. The governor indicated he would agree to "sin taxes" on liquor or cigarettes; supporters responded that that wouldn't meet the $555 million price tag. They hoped to deter the veto threat with the even less savory prospect of a court-ordered plan, which would take money directly away from rich school districts to beef up poor ones, but that strategy failed -- partly because a minority of Democratic legislators declared the court plan would actually be better for poor students. The provisional compromise calls for equal spending on at least 90 percent of students and, through an incredibly complex formula, triggers state aid for districts whose highest allowable tax rates don't raise their spending enough.

The political shenanigans here only highlight the stubborn conflict between educational equity and local school control. Virtually all schools are funded by local property taxes. This assures local say, but it also means that not only do poorer districts bring in fewer funds for schools; they do so even when they impose higher property tax rates. High tax rates keep such districts poor, unattractive to businesses. The state can help by guaranteeing a "floor" on per-pupil spending. But it can't really smooth out inequities without also imposing some kind of cap on the amount a rich district can spend on its own kids. This meets understandable opposition.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 declined to establish a right to equal per-pupil funding, but the problems, persisting, have brought a second wave of action in state courts. New Jersey now has a school finance equalization law. Courts in Kentucky and Montana have declared existing school finance systems unconstitutional; Kentucky is now well on the way to building a new system from scratch. Texas's inequities are particularly acute -- oil boom and bust greatly widened the distance between poorer and richer communities -- and the steps needed to close that distance are commensurately dramatic. Even if the new package survives, the schools have a long way to go.