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Missouri Supreme Court upholds the state's funding formula for public schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 1, 2009 - In a decision handed down today, the Missouri Supreme Court has ruled that the state's public school funding formula crafted in 2004 is constitutional. The ruling knocks down arguments by an unusual coalition of rural, suburban and urban districts that had contended that the state was underfunding its public schools.

More than 250 of the state's 523 school districts participated in the case. The suit challenged both the adequacy and the fairness of how Missouri pays for public education.

The case, which began five years ago, featured two opposing school groups: the Committee for Educational Equality, which filed the suit, and the Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools, a group of suburban schools that stood to gain from the new formula. However, some members of the Coalition also sided with the Committee schools who filed the suit.

The state high court's decision was 7-0 on parts, and 6-1 on others. But the bottom line: The state Supreme Court backed up a lower court ruling of two years ago in favor of the current formula

The court's action means that the state Legislature is unlikely to revisit the issue, since its current education funding allocation formula is now officially legal.

Educators call ruling a disappointment

Melissa Randol, general counsel, Missouri School Boards Association, said the ruling was a disappointment but not a surprise, given what had happened in lower courts and in other states.

She wouldn't speculate on the climate for continued work on the funding formula in Jefferson City, but she hoped that lawmakers would be able to take another look at how school funds could be distributed more equitably and more adequately.

"We feel like there is an opportunity for continued improvement," Randol said, "and we're looking forward to being able to continue to get a funding system so all children in Missouri can get an excellent education that prepares them for the future."

The Rockwood School District was one of several locally that were part of the Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools. Shirley Broz, chief financial officer at Rockwood, said they were seeking a more equitable process across the state in the way property was assessed and taxes were levied for schools.

While the outcome didn't meet all the goals of the group, Broz said, it did draw attention to the state formula, and changes were made to respond to what Rockwood and other districts were seeking, because money was allocated "based on student need, which is more fair and equitable."

Ron Orr, the chief financial officer in Pattonville, said that changes made to the formula in 2005 that helped bring those changes could help even more if it were fully funded more quickly than the seven years the law called for. He noted that with laws like No Child Left Behind, districts are facing more challenges and obstacles than ever before.

The suit brought by hundreds of school districts across the state challenged both the adequacy and the fairness of how Missouri pays for public education.

Supporters of formula express relief

Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, applauded the decision. "In 2005, the Legislature worked hard to devise a formula that would be as fair as possible to Missouri school children.  Now it is time to put our focus back on education rather than litigation."

State Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, was the original sponsor of the funding formula when it was crafted in 2004.

"I'm obviously pleased with the (court's) decision, but I'm not surprised," Shields said.

As he views it, the formula moves away from being based on property taxes to "a needs-based formula ... what it actually costs to educate a child.'' Shield also noted that "in the four years of the phase-in, we have increased K-12 funding by $444,959,181 without a tax increase."

He blames the long-standing court fight on lawyers who "convinced these school districts that there was a mythical pot of gold'' of additional state money, if they successfully challenged the new formula.

Referring to all sides' court costs, which -- except for Rex Sinquefield's lawyer -- came from public funds, Shields added: "The sad part of it is, upwards of $6 million was spent on attorneys, not on children."

The Supreme Court did say that the lower court made a mistake in allowing certain defendant-intervenors, including St. Louis County lawyer Bevis Schock and St. Louis multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield, both of whom advocate some types of school choice, especially for failing school districts.

Sinquefield's lawyer in the case, Joshua Schindler, said the multimillionaire got involved largely on philosophical grounds.

Sinquefield and Schock "thought that school districts should not be able to use the court system to get more money from the state,'' Schindler said, just because they disagreed with the Legislature's decision.

Sinquefield also believed that the state attorney general when the suit was filed, now-Gov. Jay Nixon, wasn't adequately defending the state in the suit, his lawyer said.

Like its predecessor, the new formula did give less money to wealthier school districts that provided more money through their local property taxes.

However, the formula capped the local assessments at the 2004 value. Over time, wealthier school districts generally stood to gain money -- compared to what they would have gotten if the formula took into account increases in assessed values.

According to Schindler, the new formula also gave more weight to student performance at a school district and how much it cost per student for a district to achieve better results

The upshot: The new formula moves away from a tax-rate driven formula, Schindler said, and more toward student achievement.

What the court case entailed

At issue was Article IX of the Missouri Constitution, particularly two sections.

One requires that the state set up and maintain a system of free public education; the other says that Missouri must spend no less than 25 percent of its annual revenue to support those schools.

Districts that filed suit seeking to declare the foundation formula unconstitutional focused primarily on the question of equity, claiming that because the formula did not require the state to spend more than 25 percent, it failed to support the kind of public schools the constitution requires.

But in its ruling, the Supreme Court rejected several specific arguments brought against the formula.

The justices stated flatly that those who filed suit "are attempting to read a separate funding requirement" into the constitution "that would require the legislature to provide 'adequate' education funding in excess of the 25-percent requirement contained in section 3(b). Such language does not exist."

Further, it said that "notably, no expressed right to equitable education funding exists" in the part of the constitution that establishes free public schools.

So, the justices said, "there is no constitutional basis for implying an equal per-pupil spending requirement."

In a partial dissent, Judge Michael Wolff noted that the disparities in per-pupil spending among school districts in Missouri is "stunning," and he said he reads the majority opinion released Tuesday "as keeping the door open to a direct challenge to the state's failure to equalize property assessments properly."

"In Lake Wobegon," Wolff wrote, in reference to Garrison Keillor fictional Minnesota community, " 'all the children are above average.' In Missouri, all the children in public schools will get an 'adequate' education under the state's revised school finance law. The children of the fictional Lake Wobegon all cannot be above average, as a matter of simple math, but one never should underestimate the power of belief. Adequacy, on the other hand, theoretically can be achieved for all, and the new school funding law sets a standard for adequacy of funding. Unfortunately, however, the school funding law's math does not always work; even the modest goal of adequacy is beyond the reach of many school districts."

That view was echoed by a statement from the state House Democratic Caucus, which said:

"The Missouri Supreme Court today ruled that the state's method of funding local public schools meets the minimum constitutional requirements. The court, however, did not rule that the state is doing all it can to improve the quality of public education. Although the bare minimum may be sufficient to comply with the state constitution, Missouri children deserve an educational system that provides much more than the bare minimum.

"In 2005, the Republican-controlled General Assembly and then-Republican governor replaced an outdated, inadequate and unfair public school funding formula with a new system that is just as inadequate and perhaps even more unfair. That formula is now four years old, but is still only halfway through its long phase-in period. By the time the system is fully implemented for the 2012-2013 school year, another generation of Missouri children will have been shortchanged."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.
Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.