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Trial focuses on Mo. school funds

The state is accused of not paying enough for public education.
Thursday, January 4, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:04 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri government isn’t spending enough to ensure public schoolchildren get a proper education, about half of the state’s school districts argued in a trial that began Wednesday.

“The bottom line is that school districts, be they large or small, are hurting. They’re not able to provide an adequate and equitable education,” said Alex Bartlett, the main attorney for the Committee for Educational Equality.

The Columbia Public School District is among the schools suing. Several schools have dropped the suit, but about 230 remain involved.

The trial comes nearly three years after the lawsuit was filed and follows a similar court battle that ended in 1993, when Cole County Circuit Judge Byron Kinder ruled the state’s plan for funding public schools was unconstitutional. Later that year, the legislature raised income taxes to pay for schools and changed the formula in response.

Lawmakers again overhauled the state system for distributing money to public schools in 2005, moving from a system largely driven by rising property values to one that sets a base amount of spending per student and provides state aid for what a district doesn’t raise locally. That target figure is based on spending and characteristics of districts that score highest on a state report, which includes both districts with strong academic performance and those making improvements.

The trial before Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan could stretch six weeks and include dozens of witnesses.

In essence, suing school districts contend the state doesn’t put enough money in public education and doesn’t fairly distribute the money, even under the new formula. Missouri’s budget includes about $2.7 billion in basic state aid for public schools this year.

A key argument of the state is that the only specific constitutional requirement on an adequate funding level is that the state spend one-fourth of its revenue on education, a standard the attorney general’s office says has been met. Anything beyond that is the legislature’s call, not a school’s or a court’s, the state contends.

Assistant Attorney General Jim McAdams said the lawsuit is not really about how much money Missouri is spending on education, but whether the legislature’s actions violate the constitution.

Another attorney, Josh Schindler, who was allowed into the case to represent three taxpayers as defendants, said the school districts are trying to get a court to do what they could not persuade lawmakers to do.

“This case is about money and nothing else,” he said. “The school districts do not like what they got from the legislature. They’re asking this court to take over legislative function.”

Bartlett said the one-fourth of revenue the state is required to spend is just a starting point and Kinder’s 1993 decision already found that requirement alone does not satisfy the “adequate education” standard.


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