Trial opens in Missouri school funding lawsuit

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri government isn't spending enough to ensure public school children get a proper education, about half of the state's school districts argue in a trial beginning Wednesday.

The trial comes nearly three years after the lawsuit was filed and follows a similar court battle that ended in 1993, when Cole County Circuit Judge Byron Kinder ruled the state's plan for funding public schools was unconstitutional. Later that year, the Legislature raised income taxes to pay for schools and changed the formula in response.

Lawmakers again overhauled the state system for distributing money to public schools in 2005, moving from a system largely driven by rising property values to one that sets a base amount of spending per student and provides state aid for what a district doesn't raise locally. That target figure is based on spending and characteristics of districts that score highest on a state report, which includes both districts with strong academic performance and those making improvements.

The trial before Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan could stretch six weeks and include dozens of witnesses.

In essence, suing school districts contend the state doesn't put enough money in public education and doesn't fairly distribute the money, even under the new formula. Missouri's budget includes about $2.7 billion in basic state aid for public schools this year.

A key argument of the state is that the only specific constitutional requirement on an adequate funding level is that the state spend one-fourth of its revenue on education, a standard the attorney general's office says has been met. Anything beyond that is the Legislature's call, not a school's or a court's, the state contends.

Alex Bartlett, the main attorney the suing districts' Committee for Educational Equality, said that is just a starting point and that Kinder's 1993 decision already found that requirement alone does not satisfy the "adequate education" standard. In particular, the suing school districts take issue with the state not providing funding for school buildings, an area they say shows some of the widest disparities between rich and poor.

The first several days of the trial are expected to focus on property tax assessments. The issue is a main concern to one group of plaintiffs, the Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools, made up largely of suburban districts.

The group believes property is being undervalued in parts of the state, which means local districts aren't getting as much money as they should with a given tax rate, forcing the state to spend more than it should have to help schools reach the state spending target.

Case is Committee for Educational Equality v. State of Missouri, 04CV323022.

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