JEFFERSON CITY — A plan to change the state’s school foundation formula suffered a significant setback Thursday with a House committee’s vote to defeat the proposal.
“What you saw here was a rural versus urban divide,” said Rep. Brian Baker, R-Belton and chairman of the House Special Committee on Education Funding.
The measure is one of the largest issues remaining in the final two weeks of the legislative session, and its rejection came after several days of discussion and a series of amendments that caused support for the bill to decay among suburban lawmakers. Failure to approve a new formula would leave the state where it was at the beginning of the legislative session: relying on a school-foundation formula where constitutionality is the subject of a lawsuit.
Still, the measure’s sponsor, Senate Majority Floor Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, downplayed the committee vote. Shields, who has been working on the new formula for two years, said he thinks it can be saved.
“I think they let the process get away from them,” he said of the committee. “They put on some amendments that made it impossible for them to pass that bill.”
Gov. Matt Blunt is watching the developments, too. His spokeswoman, Jessica Robinson, said he would consider calling a special session if the legislature fails to approve a new formula before this session ends.
Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, witnessed the committee vote. He said Democratic opposition remained united because the process was hurried.
“This was a real defeat for Gov. Blunt,” Harris said. “His foundation formula, one of the promises he made during his campaign, was opposed by members of his own party.”
House leaders, however, questioned Democrats’ desire to pass a new formula and said plenty of time remains.
“The committee was designed to be bipartisan; that was the whole goal of us trying to accomplish this,” Baker said. “Unfortunately, one side of the aisle lined up in opposition, and a few of those members would have benefited.”
Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, voted for the proposal. He said he anticipated its failure but believes the committee can pass an acceptable proposal in time.
“We just need to get to work and get one done,” he said. “We’ve got two weeks left. It might be the last Friday, but we have to get this done.”
Among the most controversial amendments the committee made to Shields’ formula was changing how the state would account for wage differences in different areas, which would affect how much state money the schools in those areas would receive. The Senate’s version would compare the average wage statewide with the average wage of each county. If a county’s average were 15 percent higher than the statewide average, the county’s schools would receive additional state funds.
The House committee changed this. Its version would have broken the state into regions, and the average wages of these regions — rather than of individual counties — would be compared with the statewide average when determining funding. Urban areas would have received less state money under this plan than under the Senate plan, while outlying areas would have received more.
At the insistence of rural legislators and House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, the committee also changed the wage difference needed to receive state funds, from 15 percent to 10 percent. Jetton said he supported the change and thinks believed suburban lawmakers could support it. He said he thinks rural Democrats would sign on to replace defecting Republicans.
“Here’s the one thing I think a lot of people have missed in the formula: It’s got to be affordable,” he said. “It’s great for us to pass a great formula that puts money in all districts, and everyone gets a bunch more, and everyone’s happy. But that doesn’t help if you can’t fund it.”
The committee also voted to increase the phase-in period from five years to seven years and to increase from $10 million to $15 million the additional state money that would be divided among districts with fewer than 300 students.
Overall, the House version of the formula is cheaper. It would cost $660 million, compared to the Senate’s $690 million.
The formula sets $6,117 as the minimum spending per pupil and then adds money based upon demographic comparisons to districts that receive perfect scores on the Annual Performance Review.
Although the legislature’s leadership indicated that the bill is not dead and that they would consider several procedural maneuvers to resurrect it, some Democrats on the committee expressed concern about the basics of the formula.
Rep. Michael Corcoran, D-St. Louis County, said the proposal is skewed because many of the comparison districts have fewer than 1,000 students. He said using achievement on the No Child Left Behind Act would make the sample more representative.
Rep. Bob Johnson, R-Lee’s Summit, said the committee’s changes unfairly hurt suburban districts. All the Republicans who voted against the bill come from St. Louis County, Jackson County or Springfield.
“The cost of educating students is much higher in urban areas, and that has to be addressed before I’ll consider changing my mind,” Johnson said.
The session ends May 13.