JEFFERSON CITY — When it comes to Missouri education policy, what the General Assembly didn’t do this session may turn out to be more important than what it did.
State legislators failed to revise Missouri’s Foundation Formula, the key mechanism through which the state distributes $2.4 billion to its public schools. The formula is also the subject of a major lawsuit involving nearly half of the state’s school districts.
“I wasn’t at all surprised,” said Sen. Wayne Goode, D-Normandy, about the failure to make much headway into fixing the formula. In 1993, Goode played a key role in designing the formula that’s currently in question. “The basis (for reforming the formula) was just not in place.”
By next session, however, legislators may not be able to put the problem aside. The suit, which was filed in January, challenges the constitutionality of the current funding setup. The legal challenge is presently wending its way through the Cole County courts.
The suit alleges that the Foundation Formula fails to meet two constitutionally-mandated requirements: It neither distributes enough money, nor does it distribute the money equitably among school districts.
The legislature did convene a panel that began examining Missouri’s school-funding problem. But the committee’s report, released in February, offered few concrete findings.
Studies reiterated the major problem is that more money is needed for the formula — anywhere from an additional $700 million to $1 billion. Though the formula gained about $100 million in this year’s budget, the state is still a long way off from funding a “proration factor” of 1, or 100 percent.
“Dealing with the formula would have required facing the reality that a lot more money is needed to fund schools,” said Alex Bartlett, lead attorney for the group suing the state. “I don’t think there were people willing to grapple with that.”
Leading Republicans, including House Speaker Catharine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, and Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, said that work on the Foundation Formula was only in its beginning stages.
“This is a long process,” said Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who chaired the education finance reform committee. “You have to evolve into it (the new formula.)”
Acting on the formula isn’t guaranteed to get any easier next session, especially after roughly 60 school districts were successful in raising their local property tax rates in April elections.
Because the formula rewards districts for local tax efforts, Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said in April that those rate increases could make the formula more difficult to fund and less equitable.
The General Assembly will also face problems stemming from term limits. Some Senators, including Goode, who is widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable school funding experts in state government, will be forced out of their seats in January.
That means a new crop of legislators will have to be brought up to speed on the intricacies and complexities of the formula — and there are many of both.
Meanwhile, school districts involved with the suit can only sit and watch as the state tackles — or avoids tackling — school finance reform. But there is some reason for optimism on their part, stemming from both legislative and legal precedent.
In 1993, as a result of a nearly identical lawsuit against the state, Cole County Circuit Court judge Byron Kinder ordered the General Assembly to fix the formula. In turn, it produced the largest tax increase in recent years, which could be difficult to do again since tax raises now require voter approval.
Earlier this year in Kansas, courts mandated the legislature to create a new school-funding mechanism — a task not completed before its session ended.Now, Missouri schools are waiting to see if their suit will play out in a similar fashion.Both Bartlett and Gene Oakley, a commissioner in Carter County and a leader of the group suing the state, said that’s what they’ve been expecting from the beginning.
“The legislature will not act until forced to,” Oakley said.