Standing up for schools

Attorney Alex Bartlett has a strong track record
in education and constitutional law
Sunday, November 2, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:51 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The lawyer whose efforts led to the largest tax increase in Missouri history sits behind stacks of paper, organized in a way that only he understands. He is serious, reserved, rehearsed. He is unknown to most Missourians, yet few people have had more impact on education in Missouri.

Alex Bartlett is getting his ducks in a row to once again contest the constitutionality of education funding in Missouri.

Bartlett said he plans to file the lawsuit in November on behalf of more than 200 Missouri school districts including schools in Audrain, Callaway, Cole, Howard, Moniteau and Randolph counties in mid-Missouri.

In the early 1990s, when Missouri schools were among the most disparately funded in the country, Bartlett championed the cause of struggling districts.

The imbalance was the result of a string of court cases in the early 1980s that had forced the state to pour money into urban districts in response to court-ordered desegregation, while resources for rural Missouri schools declined.

“We were starving slowly,” said Gene Oakley, former superintendent for the Poplar Bluff district. “It was quiet desperation. Things had been getting bad for a long time, and we didn’t see anything getting better.”

Oakley and others decided they had had enough. Using the impetus from a Texas case in which a school district successfully sued the state for failing to provide equal education, Missouri superintendents representing 89 districts formed the Committee for Education Equality.

“We sort of went out there on faith,” Oakley said. “We thought we would mount an effort.”

They needed a lawyer, but more than a lawyer, they needed someone with an understanding of education. They found Alex Bartlett. “Things just clicked,” Bartlett said of the experience.

Bartlett was experienced in litigation involving the Missouri Constitution, winning among others a case involving the authority of the Missouri lieutenant governor during the governor’s absence.

“He was a country boy, attended Warrensburg, and was taught the value of education early on,” Oakley said. Bartlett’s mother was a teacher, and took courses at Central Missouri State University alongside her son.

“I think he has a certain passion for this, and that is exactly what you would look for in an attorney,” said Larry Ewing, superintendent at Fort Osage.

A sense of uncertainty permeated the trial in 1993. In Missouri, nothing like this had been attempted before. “It was a scary day,” said Allan Crader, a Southwest Missouri State University professor of school finance who was a superintendent at the time. “One of those things where you know that you are right in your own heart, but you don’t know how it will come out.”

The state argued that unequal levels of money given to schools did not play a major role in the quality of education in Missouri schools. But Bartlett silenced the defense by showing a direct correlation between district performance and levels of state funding.

“He was like a kid in a candy store,” Crader said.

In the end, Judge Byron Kinder ruled that Missouri’s funding system was unconstitutional for failing to provide equal opportunity for education as mandated by Article IX, Sections 1 and 2 of the Missouri Constitution.

The legislature responded with Senate Bill 380 — the Outstanding Schools Act — which brought about a new school funding formula, financed by a $310 million tax increase, primarily in the form of a sales tax hike.

Educators across the state were ecstatic. “From a teacher’s perspective it was wonderful because it was a demonstration that somebody cared,” Ewing said. Bartlett described the outcome as euphoric. “It was the most important case that I’ve ever had.”

Jacque Cowherd, deputy superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, said the funding situation in Columbia schools was drastically improved by the Outstanding Schools Act. “There was a renewed emphasis on funding literacy efforts and curriculum development, and there was a considerable amount of revised state revenue that came to districts in our county,” he said.

Anti-tax Republicans criticized the Democratic leadership for raising taxes without first going to the people of Missouri. “I had made a commitment to vote for a modest tax increase, but when they got up to $300 million, I couldn’t go for it,” Sen. John Russell, R-Lebanon said in a recent interview.

For a while the funding situation for Missouri schools looked hopeful. But as the economic decline continued into the late ’90s, the formula used to distribute money to local schools was increasingly underfunded. As a result, 10 years after the landmark case, Bartlett is at it again.

He is studying case law from the past 10 years, preparing once again to take on school funding in Missouri. Bartlett is confident but realistic.

“I think I am able to sit back and look at the situation more objectively than I could 10 years ago to know that there are no quick fixes,” Bartlett said.

“I have a suspicion that it’s sort of like it was in 1993 when everyone just kind of sat back until the courts forced us to do something,” said Sen. Doyle Childers, R-Reeds Spring. “And so it’s a way of taking the pressure off of the leadership in all of these areas from dealing with a very hot potato.”

A lawsuit is needed again, Bartlett said, because it’s the only way to get the legislature to act. “I say that with all respect to the legislature because I have a respect for the process, but I also know that last time legislators reacted positively.”

Of Missouri’s 524 school districts, nearly half have become party to the planned suit. “I think it’s a more generally felt problem now than it was back in early 1990,” Bartlett said.

Columbia schools have not joined the group, but Cowherd said the school board will be considering that possibility in the near future.

“In the first case, most of the plaintiffs were small rural school districts,” said Melody Daily, clinical professor of law at MU. “This time some large suburban school districts, such as Hazelwood in St. Louis, have joined the lawsuit.”

The primary charge in the 1993 case was that the formula used to distribute funds led to unequal quality of education across the state, a problem that school officials call inequity.

While inequity is still a concern, a new issue has emerged. School officials now charge that the state is not providing enough money to education.

In New York, a Court of Appeals early this year found that the New York system was unconstitutional on equity and adequacy issues.

Questions remain about how to achieve adequate school funding.

“I don’t see how you can make significant changes in the formula,” Russell said, “without there being some increase in taxes to cover the shift.”

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