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Funding. Again. This time it's radically different in the same state.
By Matt Franck
Post-Dispatch Jefferson City Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - What began five months ago as a legislative effort to improve Missouri's method for funding public schools ended Thursday somewhere between a rock and a hard place.

Some lawmakers doubt whether the Legislature will find the money or political will this session to fix a system that many believe shortchanges children in poorer school districts.

The 14-member Joint Interim Committee of Education began meeting in September to study whether Missouri distributes education money in a way that's fair and adequate for all students.

Some had hoped the committee might offer bipartisan consensus on how to improve the system without massive increases in what's spent on schools. But if the committee's report concludes anything, it's that the simplest solutions aren't cheap or politically feasible.

At one extreme, the state could spend upward of $1.4 billion more on schools to make sure that each child is given adequate resources to succeed. That finding comes from John Augenblick, a consultant from Denver who has helped several states overhaul school spending.

On the other extreme, the state could keep spending the same amount on schools, but take local tax money from richer school districts and redistribute it to poorer ones. That option was offered by Craig Wood, a University of Florida professor whose research suggests that hundreds of districts - including most in the St. Louis area - would lose money under such a "Robin Hood" approach.

The committee essentially rejects both options - one for being too expensive during lean financial times, and the other for lacking support among parents and taxpayers. But Sen. Charlie Shields, who heads the committee, said he still sees room for the Legislature to improve the system.

"In that report we have two extremes," he said. "What's doable is somewhere in the middle."

While Shields, R-St. Joseph, rules out the possibility of investing $1 billion more in education immediately, he said more modest increases in spending over time could increase equity in school spending. That new money, he said, could come without tax increases if the economy continues to rebound.

As it is, per-pupil spending ranges from less than $5,000 a year in poorer districts to more than $13,000 annually in wealthier ones. The state's school funding formula tries to balance the scales by guaranteeing a base level of spending while rewarding school districts that are willing to tax themselves.

The legislative committee's report questions whether focusing so heavily on tax rates is the right approach. Instead, the report encourages lawmakers to look first at the needs of students, which could vary between rural and urban school districts.

"This centers the policy discussion on how to get the right resources to each district based on the students' needs, rather than the capacity of their parents and the community to provide for them," the report states.

In all, the report offers nine findings, most all of which merely acknowledge in one way or another that fixing the system won't be easy.

The report had so few recommendations, in fact, that one member of the committee refused to sign it.

Rep. Bob Johnson, R-Lee's Summit, said he had expected the committee to take more of a stand. Johnson believes the school funding system has been corrupted over time with amendments that make spending less equitable. He had hoped that the special committee would at least seek a repeal of some of those changes.

The issue of school funding is expected to intensify in Jefferson City on Monday, when thousands of school superintendents, school board members, parents and students are scheduled to rally at the Capitol for increased spending.

In anticipation of that event, House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, held a news conference Thursday to announce a plan that she hopes could help direct a greater portion of school spending to the classrooms.

Hanaway plans to file a bill that would require that 90 percent of what school districts spend be directed toward classroom services, rather than on administrative costs. Hanaway said she believes administrative costs for schools in the state currently hover around 11 percent. But getting an exact figure is difficult, given that the definitions of what constitutes administrative costs can vary.

In making the announcement, Hanaway acknowledged she has not worked through details and would welcome the input of educators.

How much the Legislature ultimately does to reform the school funding system could rest with the courts. A lawsuit filed last month by 243 school districts seeks to have the state's school funding system declared unconstitutional on the grounds that it fails to adequately support all students.

Court rulings resulting from similar lawsuits in other states have often forced legislatures to raise taxes and increase education spending.

Alex Bartlett, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit in Missouri, said he doubts whether Missouri will dramatically alter its own system without court pressure.

"I've been told by some lawmakers that the only way we are going to solve this is if the lawsuit goes forward," he said.

Reporter Matt Franck
E-mail: mfranck@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 573-635-6187

— Reporter Matt Franck
Education panel fails to find answers



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