Editor's note: This is the fourth installment in a six-part, weekly series examining key issues in the Missouri governor's race.
By Marc Powers ~ Southeast Missourian
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Sometime during the four-year term of Missouri's next governor, a pending lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state's system for funding public schools likely will be resolved. Both major party candidates for the office say the state must take immediate action to address the situation to avoid a court-imposed solution.
Overhauling how Missouri distributes money to local school districts, however, usually proves a political minefield.
Redistributing existing resources so that the poorer districts which rely the most on state support get a greater share inevitably costs comparably wealthier districts money. And districts across the financial spectrum enjoy strong representation in the Missouri Legislature.
Historically, the only politically viable way to rewrite the state's school funding formula has been to help everyone by putting substantially more money into the system. A major tax increase to achieve that goal, however, at this point appears unlikely.
Given those political realities, it shouldn't be surprising that leading up to the Nov. 2 elections the plans State Auditor Claire McCaskill and Secretary of State Matt Blunt propose to bolster public education are somewhat sketchy on details, which they say will have to be hashed out in consultation with lawmakers and members of the education community.
McCaskill, a Democrat, says the positive aspect of the lawsuit, which was filed in January and is slowly working its way through the courts, is that it provides policy makers an incentive to move quickly.
"It is a good thing we have the discipline of the court case looming over us," said McCaskill, adding that it will force compromise in finding a solution.
Blunt, a Republican, likewise says a legislative fix is far preferable than one ordered by a judge.
"We seldom see benefit when we let the judicial branch tell the other branches of government what to do," Blunt said.
Both candidates say savings can be found within the existing state budget and redirected to education.
Of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's $4.77 billion budget for the current fiscal year, $2.76 billion is distributed in direct aid to Missouri's 524 public school districts. The latter amount falls approximately $600 million short of what under state law is considered "full funding" for this year.
The department's overall appropriation today is 91.8 percent higher than it was for fiscal year 1993, the year before the current funding system was implemented. However, critics complain the state's financial commitment to education still lags behind where it needs to be and that the money which is provided is unfairly distributed.
McCaskill says she would reward districts that keep administrative costs low by allowing them to leverage greater shares of state funds. She also would hold districts more accountable for how they spend taxpayer money by requiring the state auditor's office to review each district's books every three years.
Districts currently hire private firms to conduct such audits. However, McCaskill says those reviews vary by district and fail to provide uniform results that allow for easy statewide comparisons. Having the auditor's office assume that role would provide better oversight, she says, without increasing costs.
"It would provide a consistent glimpse as to where the money is going," McCaskill said.
Blunt says he would redirect additional resources into the classroom by cutting bureaucracy at DESE and shifting savings created by restructuring other state agencies.
Blunt's primary education pledge is that he would never withhold funds appropriated for schools, as Gov. Bob Holden did during the prior two fiscal years out of concern the state didn't have the money to cover what the legislature budgeted.
While Holden reversed his second round of withholdings after it was clear the revenue was available, the initial withholding proved essential to keeping the overall budget in balance.
Although DESE is one of the few state agencies that receives large amounts of discretionary general revenue that can be tapped in the event of a midyear budget shortfall, Blunt says he would look elsewhere if confronted by similar circumstances.
"I am willing to take drastic action in the rest of state government to protect education," Blunt said. "This is the most important thing state government does."
In defeating Holden in the August Democratic primary, McCaskill also criticized the practice of withholding from schools.
Campaign advertisements in recent weeks have attacked each candidate's record on education.
One McCaskill commercial takes Blunt to task for voting to reject DESE's budget during his single term as state representative in 1999 and 2000. Blunt says he voted against virtually every appropriations bill that made up the state budget to send a message that a financial train wreck was looming if government spending wasn't controlled.
"You couldn't grow state government that rapidly and not expect trouble down the road," Blunt said.
Blunt in turn has criticized McCaskill, who served in the House from 1983 to 1989, for voting against proposals that set aside lottery revenue for education. While she felt that money should go to schools, McCaskill says she is philosophically opposed to earmarking revenue for specific purposes unless there is a mechanism in place to later undo the actions if the money is being wasted.
"I've had a long-held belief that earmarking taxes without a sunset breeds a lack of accountability," McCaskill said.
Next week: College affordability