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Opinion: School funding

Sunday, May 22, 2005

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

One thing Missouri's new school funding formula apparently won't change is the pending lawsuit that challenges the state's system of funding public schools.

Filed last year by ... a group representing dozens of public school districts throughout the state, the suit claims that Missouri's funding system is inequitable, inadequate and unconstitutional.

The Legislature last week approved a funding plan designed to fix the problem before the courts step in. But the new plan has two big problems: It has no guaranteed source of funding, and it would spend less than the current formula would if fully funded.

More than 250 of the state's 524 school districts joined the suit, but some might drop out now that the Legislature has changed the formula. Still, attorney Alex Bartlett says what happened in Jefferson City during this legislative session fell short of fixing the funding issues raised in the lawsuit.

The one thing Gov. Matt Blunt and lawmakers did right, Mr. Bartlett says, is base state education spending on student need rather than on property tax levels. The Legislature decided that adequate spending would be the average spent by 113 districts that had shown improvement on state tests. It came up with a figure of $6,117 per student per year.

But Mr. Bartlett says there were flaws in the way the Legislature computed that figure. Only 18 of the 113 model districts actually met all achievement goals established by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. If the formula were pegged to average spending of these districts ... per pupil spending would be pegged at $7,868 rather than $6,117.

Mr. Blunt says he expects that good economic conditions will provide enough money to fund the $800 million increase in education spending over the next seven years. That's hardly a responsible way to support public education or a fiscally responsible way to run a government.

What happened this session is at most a modest down payment. The hard work lies ahead during next year's legislative session when Missouri's residents can hope that lawmakers will get serious about finding a way to pay for the quality education our children need.

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