‘Model’ schools also suing for funds

Monday, February 28, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:24 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — As state lawmakers work on a new way to fund public schools, they are basing their method on what “successful” school districts spend to educate their students.

But among those being used as a model for the new formula are some districts that have sued the state to get more money.

Lawmakers propose to define successful schools as those receiving perfect scores on their annual performance report from state education officials. The report measures such things as standardized test scores, dropout rates and the number of high school graduates who go on to college.

Those are the same factors by which school districts are accredited. But Missouri’s system also takes improved test scores into account.

As a result, schools with varying levels of achievement can still attain perfect scores and be recognized for strong performance by the state.

“Two school districts can have very different starting points,” said Jim Morris, a spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “If District B meets the improvement goals, it can meet the standards the same as District A, even though the students in District A may be performing at a higher level.”

The state has identified 113 districts that hit that mark in 2004. More than half of them are among those suing the state.

Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who is leading the effort to craft a new formula, called the parallel “interesting.”

“In essence, what we’re saying is they have a perfect score given the level of funding they have, and yet they want more money,” Shields said.

Districts that sued in hopes of seeing more money may not have expected to be used as the standard for the funding level every student in the state needs to perform well, and it’s probably not the result they want.

In all, 256 of the state’s 524 districts are part of the original lawsuit, so some overlap would be expected. The bulk of districts are challenging the fairness and adequacy of state funding.

A separate group of 34 districts has intervened, agreeing the state should spend more on education but trying to protect their own share when the state re-slices the pie.

In trying to revamp the formula for the first time since 1993, Shields proposed setting a statewide minimum amount — estimated at $6,300 — to spend on each student. The formula would give districts extra credit for disproportionate numbers of students who are poor, in special education or for whom English is not their native language.

Shields reasons that districts across the state should be able to do as well as those recognized for their performance, if they receive similar levels of funding.

Those in education, however, say that’s not good enough.

“The fact of the matter is that you’re being compared against yourself,” said Tyler Laney, superintendent of the Crane School District, a leader in the lawsuit and among those with a perfect score on the annual report. “Just because we have a 100 percent on the (report) does not mean we’re the best district in the state of Missouri.”

Alex Bartlett, the attorney for the suing districts, said lawmakers would be taking a flawed approach to base their school funding formula on districts receiving perfect scores on their annual review. He cited the possibility of poorly performing districts receiving perfect scores simply for getting a little better.

“It’s a good concept, but it doesn’t really match here,” he said. “You need to look at those that are high-scoring, period.”

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