Judge upholds Missouri's school funding method

Wednesday, August 29, 2007 | 11:42 p.m. CDT; updated 10:54 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A state judge on Wednesday upheld Missouri's school funding method, generally rejecting claims by schools that it distributed money unfairly and inadequately.

Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan ruled that the state constitution provides no guarantee of absolute "equity, equality or adequacy in the dollars spent'' or in the facilities available from one school district to another.

Key dates in Missouri school funding

Key dates in Missouri school funding A look at key dates involving Missouri’s school funding: 1990 — The state’s first school funding lawsuit is filed, challenging the constitutionality of the school funding formula. 1992 — Missouri voters approve casino gambling, with proceeds directed toward education, and earmark lottery proceeds for education. 1993 — Cole County Circuit Judge Byron Kinder rules the state’s school funding formula is unconstitutional. 1993 — A few months later, the Legislature passes and Gov. Mel Carnahan signs the Outstanding Schools Act, which increased income taxes to pay for schools and set the basis for changes to the funding formula. 1998 — Legislators make changes to the school funding formula, giving all schools more money to help at-risk students. 2001 — The last time the state fully funds the school formula. 2004 — Another lawsuit is filed, challenging the equity and adequacy of the state’s funding system. 2005 — The Legislature passes a bill signed by Gov. Matt Blunt that revamps the school funding formula, moving to a state spending target per child based on the spending by certain districts. 2007 — Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan upholds the state’s school funding method, generally rejecting claims that it is inequitable and that the state provides an inadequate amount of money.

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The ruling marks a major loss for about half the state's 524 school districts, who sued more than three years ago on claims Missouri does not direct enough money to public education and doles out the money unfairly.

Alex Bartlett, an attorney for the suing schools, said he will recommend an appeal to the state Supreme Court. Missouri spent about $2.7 billion in basic aid to schools last year. It was distributed under a formula that sets a per-pupil spending target, based on the spending levels of schools that got perfect marks on a state performance report.

Experts for the suing schools had called for spending anywhere from an additional $480 million to $1.3 billion per year on public schools. Legislative leaders and Gov. Matt Blunt had voiced concerns about raising taxes if the judge were to have sided with the schools' argument.

But Callahan said he was not convinced that the constitution requires any funding beyond its stipulation that at least one-fourth of revenues must be dedicated to schools.

The only issue Callahan left unresolved is whether the state is meeting the 25 percent threshold. The judge set a Sept. 20 hearing for additional arguments on exactly what state revenues should be included or excluded in that calculation.

In 1993, one of Callahan's predecessors struck down the state's school funding method, determining among other things that the Missouri Constitution did establish an adequate school funding right beyond the 25 percent requirement.

But Callahan noted that decision was never tested on appeal, because the Legislature changed the funding formula later that year and raised taxes to pump more money into education.

To the contrary, Callahan wrote, two Supreme Court judges issued a concurring opinion in dismissing that 1993 appeal asserting that appropriations over that 25 percent threshold were within the discretion of the Legislature.

Callahan also rejected claims that the school funding formula violated the equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions. Education is not a fundamental right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, he said. The only equality standard for school funding in the state constitution was removed in 1875, Callahan added.

After school districts filed suit challenging Missouri's school funding method in January 2004, the Legislature passed a revised funding method during its 2005 session.

Callahan ruled the funding system adopted by the Legislature "is a reasonable attempt to meet its obligations'' under the constitution to maintain a public school system.

Case is Committee for Educational Equality v. State of Missouri, 04CV-323022.

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