JEFFERSON CITY — In a new stage of the fight over how Missouri funds its public schools, the head writer of the state’s current education funding law testified before a Cole County Judge on Thursday.
The legal battle centers around a Senate bill, passed in 2005, that changed the formula lawmakers use to determine how much money schools should get per student.
About half of Missouri school districts, including Columbia schools, are involved in the suit saying the state does not distribute public education funding fairly. The 236 school districts, members of the Committee for Education Equality, filed a case against the state of Missouri and other state organizations in 2004 because they were worried about the fairness of and amount of money allocated to schools.
The committee originally claimed in its lawsuit that the state’s formula for boosting aid, created in 1993, was outdated.
“The old formula was $800 million to $900 million behind,” said Alex Bartlett, the committee’s lawyer.
In response to the lawsuit, the legislature passed in 2005 a measure sponsored by Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, that changed the formula for distributing state funds among the various school districts based on expected increases in state appropriations for education.
“The idea behind the formula was a tally that attempts to raise all districts a level up,” Shields said in his testimony Thursday. “Districts will not receive less then they did before.”
But in an interview during a break in Thursday’s court session, Bartlett said most of the committee’s districts would be happier using the old formula if it had been fully funded.
The suing school districts’ witnesses have called for immediate additional funding of anywhere from $480 million to $1.3 billion a year, with more needed to account for inflation in the future.
Under the new formula, school districts receive $6,117 per student.
“Columbia is already spending much more than that now,” Bartlett said.
Shields said the purpose of the formula was not to take away funding, but to give all districts a financial boost.
“The idea was to craft a formula that was based on student need, determine what the student need was and that is exactly what the formula does, that is what it was designed to do,” Shields said.
Bartlett said that schools only get about $100 more per student following the formula change. He said the cost of living in Missouri has gone up more than the amount per student has.
Shields said the new formula wasn’t an attempt to increase funding, but a way to give all schools the same amount of money per student.
One key point for the committee is that the new formula is based on figures from the 2004-05 school year, and each year, those same figures will be used to determine school funding. The formula does not adjust for inflation every year, but rather every two years.
Bartlett said the committee is worried this means schools will not get more money as time passes.
He also said the committee is upset that the state no longer allocates money for new buildings, but Shields said this is not new.
Shields said that as far as he knows, the state has never given districts money for new schools. Instead, raising money is up to individual districts and local taxes.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.