Schools go to court

Sunday, January 11, 2004

As had been anticipated for months, a coalition of nearly half of Missouri's school districts filed a lawsuit last week that claims the legislature has failed to give public schools enough money and distributes funding unfairly.

If there are echoes, it's because this new lawsuit sounds much like the lawsuit filed by the Committee for Educational Equality's attorney, Alex Bartlett of Jefferson City, Mo., 13 years ago. That lawsuit resulted in a new school funding formula -- the one being challenged now -- and a whopping 1993 tax increase that Missourians have been paying for a decade.

The motivation for the school districts' legal challenge is the state funding pinch that has accompanied the just-ending economic downturn. As a result of the slowdown in the growth of state revenue, the legislature hasn't been able to give districts the increases they had enjoyed during the economic boom years of most of the 1990s.

Participants in the lawsuit are already having to defend claims that the state has cut school funding. It hasn't. It has given smaller increases. And when state funding and local tax revenue are combined, school districts have enjoyed steady increases in overall funding for the past five years -- nearly a 50 percent increase altogether.

Even with the extra funding, many districts are having problems fashioning budgets that stay within revenue projections. School board members are facing the same learning curve as state legislators did two years ago when the economic impact ended years of runaway growth in state revenue, accompanied by unbridled growth in spending. Now school districts are having to make the same tough choices.

In the minds of many school officials, the solution lies in a courtroom. Similar challenges by districts in other states have produced rulings ordering state legislatures to find more money for schools.

Although school officials regularly pressure legislators for more money, there was no concerted effort by board members or superintendents in the last two legislative sessions in Missouri to work out a reasonable funding plan.

And if, as expected, a judge rules the state must provide more money for schools, it is unlikely -- as Missouri history and examples from others states show -- that any judge is going to decide where the money will come from.

In addition to the amount of money districts get from the state, the new lawsuit also challenges the equity of how money is distributed. The School Foundation Formula is as complex as the IRS Code. One district's inequity is another district's cash cow. It would be interesting if the judge hearing this lawsuit ruled that the state should give every district the same amount of money per pupil and let districts supplement their budgets with voter-approved local taxes.

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