Schools in funding suit used as model for new formula

Monday, February 28, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- As state lawmakers work on a new way to fund public schools, they are basing their method on what "successful" school districts spend to educate their students.

But among those being used as a model for the new formula are some districts that have sued the state to get more money.

Lawmakers propose to define successful schools as those receiving perfect scores on their annual performance report from state education officials. The report measures such things as standardized test scores, dropout rates and the number of high school graduates that go on to college.

Those are the same factors by which school districts are accredited. But Missouri's system also takes improved test scores into account.

As a result, schools with varying levels of achievement can still attain perfect scores and be recognized for strong performance by the state.

"Two school districts can have very different starting points," said Jim Morris, a spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "If District B meets the improvement goals, it can meet the standards the same as District A, even though the students in District A may be performing at a higher level."

The state has identified 113 districts that hit that mark in 2004. More than half of them, including the Leopold, Zalma and Jackson districts, are among those suing the state.

Sen. Charlie Shields, who is leading the effort to craft a new formula, called the parallel "interesting."

"In essence, what we're saying is they have a perfect score given the level of funding they have, and yet they want more money," said Shields, R-St. Joseph.

Districts that sued in hopes of seeing more money may not have expected to themselves be used as the standard for the funding level every student in the state needs to perform well, and it's probably not the result they want.

In all, 256 of the state's 524 districts are part of the original lawsuit, so some overlap would be expected. The bulk of districts are challenging the fairness and adequacy of state funding.

A separate group of 34 districts have intervened, agreeing the state should spend more on education but trying to protect their own share when the state reslices the pie.

In trying to revamp the formula for the first time since 1993, Shields proposed setting a statewide minimum amount -- estimated at $6,300 -- to spend on each student. The formula would give districts extra credit for disproportionate numbers of students who are poor, in special education or for whom English is not their native language.

Shields reasons that districts across the state should be able to do as well as those recognized for their performance, if they receive similar levels of funding.

Those in education, however, say that's not good enough.

"The fact of the matter is that you're being compared against yourself," said Tyler Laney, superintendent of the Crane School District, a leader in the lawsuit and among those with a perfect score on the annual report. "Just because we have a 100 percent on the (report) does not mean we're the best district in the state of Missouri."

Alex Bartlett, the attorney for the suing districts, said lawmakers would be taking a flawed approach to base their school funding formula on districts receiving a perfect score on their annual review. He cited the possibility of poorly performing districts receiving perfect scores simply for getting a little better.

"It's a good concept, but it doesn't really match here. You need to look at those that are high-scoring, period," he said.

He also noted that the state's accreditation standards do not account for progress toward the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which aims to have all children proficient in English and math by 2014. The state plans to incorporate those measures into its accreditation system in coming years.

Shields noted that some "successful" districts involved in the suit already spend more than the proposed state minimum, and said those that spend less can look to brighter days.

"It shows the quality of those districts," he said. "The parents of children in those districts should be very excited."

The state spending minimum is a critical piece, but just part of a much larger fight over how to fulfill the state's obligation to public schools, and the legislative battle is just beginning.

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