Schools looking for funding equity

Thursday, May 29, 2003

Missouri pays $30,000 a year to house a prisoner, and the Scott City School District spends $5,400 to educate a student.

That seems out of whack.

So, at first glance, it may make sense to some taxpayers and school administrators to do what several Southeast Missouri school districts are considering doing. Some districts want to unite to sue the state and challenge the constitutionality of Missouri's current school-funding method.

That method is called the foundation formula. It was implemented in 1993. It was intended to make sure state funding for schools is distributed equitably among poor and wealthy districts based on factors such as local property taxes and student enrollment.

But educators say the foundation formula is shortchanging districts because it hasn't been fully funded due to state financial considerations. As a result, say some school administrators, the funding situation is back to where it was before the foundation formula was enacted: Rural schools aren't getting the same funding as districts in urban areas like St. Louis and Kansas City.

School districts like Scott City, Chaffee, Kelly, Poplar Bluff and Sikeston have joined a coalition of schools -- the Committee for Education Equality -- and are planning to sue the state for equitable funding.

Meanwhile, other school districts, like Cape Girardeau, are holding off, saying legal action is only a last resort.

Additional state money is direly needed in school districts across the state, many officials say, but especially so in some local districts, which are among the poorest in the state.

While the school districts may have the best intentions, their plan may be ill-advised.

If the lawsuit is successful, where would the extra money for schools come from? The state is in a financial mess of historic proportions, and spending cuts are being made across the board in many areas.

If the districts think the additional funding they want would come from an increase in state taxes, that is questionable also. To do that would require a statewide vote of the people, and people are already feeling overtaxed and unsure of their financial futures. It seems unlikely such a s vote would pass at this time.

Besides, why would a parent in St. Louis, where $13,000 is spent to educate each student, vote to increase his or her taxes to subsidize the education of a student in the Bootheel?

But there may be another option: local taxes? Districts that want more funding could look to the parents of their students and others within the community who place a high value on education. The matter could be put to a vote in each of these communities.

If it matters to the taxpayers of a district -- taxpayers who are convinced of the need for more school funding -- it's likely such a tax increase would pass. If voters know that the money would be used locally, they may look on it more favorably.

There's no question school funding is a problem. But with the state in such a financial quagmire, the slack may have to be picked up at the local level.

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