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Lack of funding weakens formula

Discrepancies exist, but the formula was not meant to pay equal amounts per pupil statewide.
Sunday, November 23, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:07 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

The very first line of Missouri’s foundation formula establishes a relationship between the amount of money available and the amount of money needed. It’s called the “proration factor.”

In an ideal world, that factor should be 1. In the real world, it now sits at either .82, which is the lowest estimate, or .87, which is the highest.

What’s the difference between real and ideal? Roughly $900 million, according to Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. That has some people — including the Missouri state auditor’s office — asking if funding the foundation formula is even worth the effort.

In an April 2003 audit of Missouri’s public school funding, the auditors found that “the difference between the highest and lowest funding levels is greater now than in 1993,” said McCaskill spokesman Glenn Campbell, who was with the auditor’s office when the study was released. Some in state government question whether funding would make that inequity disappear.

“There are those in Jefferson City who say we have to fully fund the formula, and if you say those magic words, everything would be OK, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Campbell said. “It sounds good, but everyone was operating in the dark when they were handing those dollars out. That disparity still exists when it is fully funded, and that is what our report got to the heart of.”

But the DESE maintains that equity exists — it just depends how you look for it.

“There are different ways to define equity,” said Gerri Ogle, associate commissioner of the DESE. “This formula attempts to distribute money by combining state and local dollars and distributing it per-pupil, per-penny of tax rate, and it does do a pretty good job.”

Ogle said the formula cannot do things it was not designed to do. And simply giving the same amount of money to every student in the state is one of those things.

“The formula will not distribute equal money per pupil,” Ogle said. “It was not written that way, and it will not do that — that’s a big difference.”

The formula was written in this manner because the state wants local governments to have some control over their funding, Ogle said. If funding were distributed on a per-pupil basis, that would mean that local governments would have less input into the funding of their school districts.

Any changes in funding make a dramatic difference in Missouri’s funding equity, she said.

“The more this formula is underfunded, the bigger the disparity becomes between the districts getting the least amount and the districts getting the most,” she said.

Some formula detractors say they feel the whole calculation is simply too complicated.

“There are so few people who actually understand the dynamics behind the formula — there is an oversimplification,” Campbell said. “They have found it easier just to say ‘fully fund it.’”


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