School funding overhaul unlikely this session

Monday, January 5, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- On Tuesday, an attorney representing 229 Missouri school districts plans to file a long-expected lawsuit challenging the way the state funds public schools.

His plaintiffs will include school officials, students, parents and taxpayers. And his claim will be twofold -- that Missouri fails to provide enough money to schools, and that the money it does provide is handed out unfairly.

Alex Bartlett is the same Jefferson City attorney who challenged the state's school funding formula more than 13 years ago.

He won then.

And he is likely to win again, at least in the determination of Gov. Bob Holden, State Auditor Claire McCaskill and some veteran state legislators.

But that doesn't mean the legislature, which starts its annual session Wednesday, is likely to pass a pre-emptive overhaul of the school funding formula this year.

In fact, because of the realities of time and politics and the complexities of school funding, it might take years before Missouri's schools are operating under a new funding method.

Missouri's existing funding formula was adopted along with a tax increase in 1993, after Cole County Circuit Judge Byron Kinder ruled in favor of Bartlett's original lawsuit and declared Missouri schools ranged from the "golden" to the "God-awful."

The funding formula attempts to redistribute the state's wealth by giving more money to poorer districts and less to wealthier districts that can rely on local taxes generated from high property values.

Rewriting not the problem

But the formula also rewards schools where the residents invest in education, increasing the state's match whenever the local tax rate is raised.

State Sen. Harold Caskey, who sponsored the 1993 overhaul, says he never expected the formula to work for more than a decade. He is among those wanting to revise it again this year. But he's not too optimistic.

"We can rewrite the formula, that's not the problem," said Caskey, D-Butler. "Passing it's a problem."

Several factors make passing a new school formula difficult:

Time. An interim House and Senate committee led by Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, has been studying ways to change Missouri's school funding system. The committee has hired a consultant, whose recommendations aren't due until mid-February.

That means at least one-fourth of the legislative session will have passed, requiring any bill to take a speedier course through committees and legislative chambers.

But time is not insurmountable. Caskey says he introduced the 1993 legislation on the last day possible to file Senate bills, and it still passed.

Complexity. Few people, legislators included, understand all the intricacies of Missouri's school funding formula, partly because a majority of House members are just beginning their sophomore year.

Because the funding formula is so complex, Shields said his committee most likely will recommend a phased-in approach to changing it. Lawmakers may tweak it some this year to restore some funding equity, then perhaps tweak it again next year. It could take as long as five years before a new formula is in place, Shields said.

"I don't think you're going to see us scrap the entire formula this year and go to a new formula," he said. "I don't think that's realistic in one year."

Politics. Elected officials often are hesitant to tackle controversial topics in an election year, especially ones that could result in tax increases being placed on the same ballot as their names.

Overhauling a school funding formula is not feasible without new revenue, because lawmakers will not stand for their local schools losing money. So rather than slicing the pie again to make funding more equitable, lawmakers invariably have to bake a bigger pie.

Yet 2004 also has a political twist that could counter some of the election-year hesitancy, at least in the Senate. Because of term limits, this is the last session for some veteran senators, Caskey included, which could increase their political will to adopt a new school formula.

Judges. While a lawsuit puts more pressure on legislators to revise the school funding formula, it conversely also could provide a reason to wait.

There is virtually no chance the lawsuit will be decided before lawmakers adjourn in mid-May. Bartlett is hoping for a decision in nine to 12 months. But last time, it took 26 months to get a court ruling.

As now, lawmakers of a decade ago were working on a revised school formula for a while, but they didn't ultimately act until after the court order provided some political cover.

"It's always easier to work with a court order, with the hammer hanging over our heads," Caskey said.

Bartlett expects a similar scenario to play out this time.

"I would be hopeful they would do some things. There are some immediate needs," Bartlett said. But "it would be very difficult to get it done this session."

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