Sides square off for school finance trial

The case covers 36 districts where scores and costs vary.
Friday, December 29, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:31 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — How much money does it take to provide students an adequate education? That question is at the heart of a court battle unfolding in a few days in the capital city.

In preparing for a trial starting Wednesday, the school districts suing the state and the attorney general’s office agreed to tailor their efforts and research to 36 of the state’s 524 public school districts.

An analysis of how that subset of districts stacks up on issues such as test scores and impoverished students could provide ammunition for both sides.

Within the subset, some school districts spend a lot without much to show in return; others spend comparatively little but score high on state tests; and others are short on funding and academic performance.

Crane School District in southwest Missouri spent an average of $6,845 per student last school year, far below the state average of $8,221, and student test scores in seventh-grade English and third-grade math also come up short of the standard around the state, by six to 14 points.

“Anybody who believes that money doesn’t make a difference, I believe that they’re blind to reality,” said Crane Superintendent Tyler Laney, who leads the Committee for Educational Equality, a group of more than 200 school districts that sued the state. Given more funding, he said, “you provide more time for those kids who are struggling to learn.”

Also involved in the litigation is a separate group of a couple dozen mostly suburban districts. Those schools are trying to ensure lawmakers or the courts don’t redirect their locally raised education money to a poorer area and are trying to see that cost-of-living differences remain a factor in school spending.

The lawsuit challenging Missouri’s school funding method as inadequate and unfair was filed Jan. 6, 2004, in Cole County Circuit Court. With the litigation pending, lawmakers in 2005 revamped the way the state distributes money to public schools. Gov. Matt Blunt and legislative leaders hoped the new system would end the lawsuit. But supporters of the lawsuit argue the new formula doesn’t do enough to close the funding gap.

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