Missouri lawmakers, looking to face down a legal challenge brought by more than half the school districts in the state, have voted to overhaul the school funding system for the first time in 12 years.
Lawmakers passed the new school aid plan on May 13 as the 2005 legislative session closed. The plan would shift the state away from a school funding system that is based largely on property wealth and tax levies to one that centers more on schools’ actual costs.
The bill is expected to be signed later this month by Gov. Matt Blunt.
Arguing that school funding should be a matter determined by Missouri’s elected representatives rather than its courts, the newly elected Republican governor had made school finance a central issue of his young administration. He even made a last-hour visit to push the plan in the House of Representatives, where the 90-65 vote approving the plan fell largely along party lines.
“Blunt made clear this was his top priority and they needed to make it theirs and, by golly, they pulled it off,” said Brent T. Ghan, the chief communications officer for the Missouri School Boards Association. “There was a lot of speculation over whether they could successfully tackle this issue or not.”
Still, questions remained last week about where the additional dollars will come from and whether the legislature’s action will persuade school districts to drop their legal challenge.
Alex Bartlett, the Jefferson City lawyer who represents the 257 districts already signed on to the lawsuit, Committee for Educational Equality v. State of Missouri, said last week he was “99 and forty-four one-hundredths percent sure” the plaintiffs will proceed with their case.
“There may be some changes in the composition of the plaintiffs,” he said, “but if the current formula were fully funded I think it would help districts more.”
Part of the problem is that it’s still not clear to what degree the new funding formula will address the complaints that are at the heart of the lawsuit. The plaintiff districts contend that the state provides too little money for schools and that the finance system results in dramatic inequities in school spending among districts.
The average per-pupil spending levels in districts across the Show Me State range from just under $5,000 to more than $14,000, according to Mr. Bartlett.
The new plan, by comparison, sets a minimum funding level of $6,117 per pupil. Analysts arrived at that figure by calculating the average per-pupil costs in more than 100 districts that have either the highest or the most improved scores on state exams.
Under the new formula, districts qualify for additional funds if they enroll disproportionate percentages of students who are disadvantaged, disabled, or non-English-speaking.
The party-line vote in the House notwithstanding, the debate over the aid formula for the most part pitted urban and suburban lawmakers against their rural counterparts, though all of the groups said they stood to suffer under the new state-aid plan.
To bring about a compromise, legislators agreed to provide a cost-of-living adjustment to districts with higher-than-average labor costs, and to widen that benefit to include the suburban districts on the fringes of high-cost urban labor markets. Lawmakers also kicked in $15 million in grants to some rural districts with schools serving fewer than 350 students in order to further broaden the formula’s appeal.
Legislators said the formula would increase state aid to K-12 schools over seven years from $2.4 billion this year to $3.1 billion. Over the next school year, they said, the changes will add up to an additional $113 million in state aid to schools.
The increase is part of a state budget that will raise funding for Missouri schools, from all state programs, by $158 million in the 2005-06 school year—a 4.4 percent increase over the current level.
But the state is expected to finish the budget year next month only $20 million in the black. Gov. Blunt and the school aid bill’s Republican sponsors say they expect the additional funds for schools to accrue naturally from cost-control measures and a growing economy.
Democrats said those projections are unrealistic—particularly because the state has not fully funded schools under the current formula for several years. “All this represents right now is an empty promise,” said Rep. Robert “Jeff” Harris, the House minority leader and a Democrat.