Shields works to fix school funding

Politicians expect to see simulations of impact before voting.
Thursday, February 24, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:44 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

While aides for Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, scramble to complete work on a plan to fix the state’s funding formula for public schools, freshman Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, has been relegated from the role of leading man to supporting actor.

Robb has at times been the lone advocate for an overhaul of the school funding system and has pushed for a formula that replaces property taxes with a statewide income tax. Shields, meanwhile, has recommended only tweaking the formula and wants to use much of the work he completed last session as leader of a committee that wrestled with the same issue.

Publicly, Robb has indicated no displeasure about his plan dying quietly after an hour-long presentation to the committee. Shields has taken to calling Robb “our economist” and predicts Robb will play a significant role in working out the bugs in a plan that Robb at one point declared would not resolve the issue.

The joint Senate-House committee that Shields chairs has only one scheduled meeting left before its deadline for recommending a fix for the formula. Numbers, however, didn’t enter the discussion until Tuesday when Shields provided estimates of how his changes would affect three anonymous Missouri school districts. Committee members said they expect to see simulations for all the state’s 524 districts before voting on a proposed solution.

One of the critical aspects of any new formula would be the establishment of a new state minimum for spending per pupil, which legislators estimate will be around $6,300. Shields’ plan would calculate this minimum by using data from the state’s best performing 113 districts.

“We are making a public policy statement that says this is the minimum amount necessary to educate a child in this state,” Shields said.

Shields said while many of the precise numbers in his plan would be negotiated throughout the week and during the committee’s last scheduled meeting, the recommendation would likely follow his blueprint.

The plan would give additional compensation to districts that have more than 23.3 percent of their students on free or discounted lunch programs, 14.9 percent in special education or more than 1.1 percent of students classified as low in English proficiency.

To arrive at a final funding figure for each district, the formula would factor in the new state minimum spending per pupil, differences in districts’ purchasing power across the state, the number of students enrolled in the district and the number of students each district has in the three higher-cost programs.

The plan would guarantee districts would not lose money while boosting every district to at least the state minimum. Doing this, however, would cost $400 million to $600 million annually over three to five years.

While nearly everyone on the committee agrees with the idea in principle, no one knows how to pay for it.

“There’s no way we could afford to implement this in over one year,” Shields said.

Rep. Brian Baker, R-Belton, said the committee would consider any possibility to find the additional money. He said increasing efficiency and prioritizing state spending would likely be the first tools, but the committee would also consider new or higher taxes if absolutely necessary.

“If we look to increase funding for education over the next several years, we can get a formula that will benefit every district in the state,” he said.

Throughout the debate, members discussed whether there might be other special circumstances that could warrant additional state aid. Sen. Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, said the formula must work for all districts in all circumstances.

“When we talk about taking special things into consideration, how are we able to do that for everything that happens in a school district?” she said.

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