Supreme Court decides in favor of current school funding formula

Wednesday, September 2, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:44 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 2, 2009

*CLARIFICATION: The full court decided the case, with Judge Richard Teitelman being replaced by a substitute judge. An earlier version of this story was unclear.

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the state's school funding method is constitutional.

In 2004, more than 200 Missouri school districts sued the state, saying that it didn't spend enough on education and had not allocated funds equitably among the state's more than 500 school districts.

At issue was the state's local property tax system that allowed richer districts to generate more per-student funding. Since the lawsuit was filed, the legislature revised the school funding formula to address the disparities.

The Columbia Public School District was among the plaintiffs in the original case, but was not among those who filed the Missouri Supreme Court appeal.

Columbia School Board member Karla DeSpain, who was president of the school board in 2007, said it decided to bow out after the 2007 ruling, because it seemed clear at that point that the plaintiffs could not win.

"We felt after the initial ruling that the appeal did not have legs," she said.

Jan Mees, the school board's current president, said leaving the suit was a difficult decision for the board to make, as it believed the suit could have led to more funding. But the board simply could not afford to continue.

"It turned out to be a financial burden, which is kind of ironic," Mees said.

"It was hard to step back from the lawsuit," she added. "I'm sure the districts did what was in the best interests of their students. It shows the commitment they have to provide the best funds they can possibly get for students."

DeSpain said she believes state funding for schools is inadequate, but the shortage is as much a problem with resources as it is with policy.

"The pool of money is not adequate," she said. "I don't believe they're spending an adequate amount, but they probably don't have it either."

But Jefferson City attorney Alex Bartlett, who represented the school districts, said he was disappointed with the court's decision.

"We'll consider a motion for rehearing. Whether we do that or not I'm not prepared to say," Bartlett said.

"I think the ball is now in the legislative arena to look at what they adopted a few years ago and see if they can make some corrections in the process," he said. "The disparities are still there."

A major figure in the case has been Gene Oakley who, along with Bartlett, helped lead a successful lawsuit against the state's school funding system in the early 1990s.

Oakley, a former state representative and district superintendent, is now the presiding commissioner of Carter County. Like Bartlett, he expressed disappointment in the state high court decision.

"Larger school districts have a large enough tax base to put a tremendous amount of money behind each student," Oakley said. "The poor districts do not have that. All this does is exacerbate the problem."

Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, sponsored the current funding formula. He said the court's decision came as no surprise and the funding formula is based "on what it actually costs to educate a child."

To those who oppose the current funding formula, Shields said, "It's working. It takes seven years to phase in and at that time we'll have increased spending for K-12 education by a billion dollars a year. This is a significant increase in school funding."

Six judges and the chief justice fully joined in the decision, and one judge partially agreed. Judge Richard Teitelman recused himself from the case and was replaced by Judge John Parrish of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Southern District.*

"Education is not a fundamental right under the United States Constitution's equal protection provision," the court's opinion said.

The court further held that the state's constitution "does not contain a mandate for equitable per-pupil expenditures among districts."

The decision noted that an earlier constitutional requirement for equitable distribution of funds among school districts had been removed in 1875.

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