The equations of education=?

Political variables shape the mathematics behind school funding allocations.
Sunday, November 23, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:13 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Otto Fajen and Brian Long, legislative assistants with the Missouri General Assembly, were faced with a tight deadline. In just a few hours, they had to compose two 140-page documents determining the financial future for 524 school districts and roughly 900,000 students.

Nothing less than the entire Missouri public school financial system was riding on their handiwork.

“That is a really terrifying process,” Fajen said. “There’s really no margin for error at that point. You do your best, and you have to live with it until there’s the political motivation to do it again.”

When Fajen and Long went through this process in 1993 as part of the revolutionary Outstanding Schools Act, they were finalizing what has become one of the most fundamental pieces of Missouri education law.

Now, more than 200 school districts are readying to sue the state over the law. And it’s all just a matter of algebra.

Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis County, was first elected to the legislature in 1962, a time when school funding was a less precise science than it is today. Equity and adequacy — today’s financial buzzwords referring to how evenly funds are distributed among school districts — were generally neglected then.

For example: One system subsidized school districts that were hiring the best-qualified teachers. Often, these districts had the most resources at their disposal. Another system, the “flat per-pupil” method, gave each student the same amount of money regardless of any special conditions.

“Equity was very, very weak,” Goode said. “They were helping districts that really didn’t need help.”

Foundation formulas arrived during the 1960s and 1970s as a result of these early experiments in school finance. The core philosophy behind these formulas is simple: A mathematical calculation is used to “equalize” state aid based on local wealth. In theory, it means that poorer districts should receive more state money, and more affluent districts should receive less.

Where the complexity and controversy begin is when specific details and exceptions are figured into the broader equation.

What happens — as Fajen and others discovered during the final authoring process in 1993 — is that even the smallest adjustments are enormously magnified when funneled through the entire formula.

“It gets increasingly more complicated as you deal with specific situations that come up, when you tack all those little things on around the side,” he said. “Then it starts behaving differently than when it was in its bare-bones form.”

Even the slightest change requires a series of re-adjustments until the results resemble what was originally intended. And, while it’s mostly basic algebra, Fajen said, that doesn’t make it any easier when you have not one, but a number of issues to tackle.

Part Two: Math, politics and interpretations

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