With passage of school funding plan, effort turns to paying for it

Thursday, April 14, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Now that the Senate has given initial approval to legislation rewriting the state's funding formula for public schools, the debate turns to how to pay for the new system.

The Senate plan, passed late Tuesday after nearly nine hours of debate, would increase basic state aid for schools from $2.4 billion to about $3.1 billion, not counting items paid separately, such as transportation aid. The new formula would be phased in over five years, starting in the 2006 to 2007 school year.

Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, wanted to spell out in the legislation that the state would provide the full amount called for to fund the new formula. The current formula is several hundred million dollars underfunded.

"I don't want this to be Easter bunny money. I don't want superintendents in three, four, five years saying, 'Where's the money?"' Graham said.

Graham's amendment failed, but the sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Charlie Shields, said a funding discussion will occur this year.

He reiterated that removing gamblers' loss limits and raising taxes on casinos could be part of the answer, though that change alone won't generate enough money to pay for the plan. He also said reining in Medicaid costs, improving the state's business climate and creating jobs should go a long way toward providing the increased school funding.

"Ultimately we have to grow general revenue," said Shields, R-St. Joseph. "That is the way that we fund this formula."

Regardless, he said, the new plan will do a better job than the current system.

"I know we'll never fully fund the existing formula," he said. "We have built a formula that is at a dollar figure that we can fund. It is at a doable category."

Politicians are trying to rewrite the school formula this year with a lawsuit looming by more than 250 school districts claiming Missouri's current funding plan is unfair and inadequate.

The legislation was approved on a voice vote and needs another vote to move to the House, where a committee is working on its own version. Key differences in the House plan include providing a boost for summer school programs and calculating cost of living differences by region rather than county. That change could push more money toward districts on the outskirts of the St. Louis region, for example.

The Senate legislation would move the formula from being based largely on local property tax rates and wealth to being based on a fixed amount that should be spent on each student, $6,117.

The spending amount is based on the amount spent per student by districts that had a perfect score on a state report that considered factors such as scores on standardized tests and graduation rates.

The proposed formula presumes all districts have the same property tax rate, $3.35 per $100 of assessed valuation, and provides state aid beyond what's raised at that level. The state would not make up the difference for districts with lower rates, and those with higher rates would not lose state aid for anything over what's collected at that level.

The proposed formula gives districts extra help for disproportionate shares of poor students, special education students and those who are still learning English.

The formula also would give a boost to areas with a high cost of living, based on average wages in a county, but would not deduct funding for areas with a lower cost of living.

School funding bills are SB287 and HB771.

On the Net:

Legislature: http://www.moga.mo.gov

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