Missouri Public School Funding Creates "Winners and Losers"
JEFFERSON CITY - The state's formula for funding public education is running out of funding just seven years after Missouri lawmakers first calculated it.
The state's "foundation formula" is the primary means by which the state gives funding to elementary and secondary schools. The current formula is meant to fill the funding gap when local property taxes in a district fall short. Put in place in 2005, the formula now faces a budget shortfall of more than $300 million dollars.
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A Tale of Two Cities
One school has a budget of more than $50 million, and Newsweek named it one of "America's Best of High Schools." The other is struggling to retain its teachers, and students go to class in buildings that haven't been renovated in more than 80 years. Both are Missouri public schools.
Located in suburban St. Louis, Ladue Horton Watkins High School offers 26 MSHSAA sports and activities, maintains state-of-the-art athletic facilities, and has some of the nation's highest Advanced Placement college credit test scores. "Ladue, that's a private school, right?" is a common misconception.
"I think sometimes, we can step back take a minute to look at it and say, ‘woah, we've got it good, said Ladue senior Joshua Wolderufael.
"We don't have any of things," said Cabool High School senior Nathan Christensen.
At Nathan's high school, located in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks, students don't have nearly the same resources as their counterparts in Ladue.
A few years ago, the school's Spanish teacher left, and the school hasn't been able to find a replacement since. Because of a cash-strapped budget, the school also had to let go of its Special Education teacher, and it can only pay its physics teacher to work part-time.
Cabool Schools Superintendent Wesley Davis says run-down facilities are another problem.
"Energy efficiency is awful, the windows are awful, the flooring is awful," said Davis.
The stark differences between schools like Ladue and Cabool have been the subject of debate for years, and have left some wondering if the state should do more to level the playing field.
A Question of Equitability and Adequacy
In 2009, half of Missouri's school districts filed suit against the state on the grounds that the formula for funding public schools was inadequate and unequal.
But the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled the state's equal protection clause does not guarantee "equitable education spending."
Judge Michael Wolff, now a professor at St. Louis University, was the only judge to dissent in part. Wolff said the current system of funding is set up to have wide disparities.
"It's very hard to argue that the Missouri Constitution requires equality when the system is set up to ensure inequality," said Wolff.
This wasn't the first time Missouri's funding formula had been litigated. In both 1993 and 2004, the court heard challenges over the constitutionality of the way the state funds its public schools.
Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Deputy Commissioner Ron Lankford said he expects this current formula could soon be litigated.
But then when you look at all school districts in the state of Missouri, we also have to understand that at some point equity is an issue," said Lankford.
School Finance Stalls in State Legislature
At the beginning of the session, leaders in both parties said funding the formula this session would be at the top of the agenda. Representative Mike Thomson, R-Maryville and Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, introduced bills that would make changes to the formula.
Both bills adjust how "formula" districts and "hold harmless" districts are funded. When the formula was first created, certain districts, often those in affluent areas, were told they would not receive any cuts to their budget.
In both the Pearce and Thomson legislation, hold harmless schools would take less of a funding hit in years when the formula is underfunded.
DESE Deputy Commissioner Ron Lankford says that his department backs both pieces of legislation.
"The main issue is driven by the fact that we have a formula that was phased in over time, and now we're underfunded," said Lankford.
But with just six weeks left in the session, politics have the bills tied up. Senator Pearce's bill hasn't moved out of committee. In the House, Thomson's bill and several other education bills were put into a omnibus package.
Representative Sara Lampe, D- Springfield, said having so many controversial measures in one bill makes the likelihood of it actually passing somewhat slim.
"Is there any possibility that we're going to have that discussion in this legislative session? I'm doubtful of that," said Lampe.
Last year, several senators filibustered a similar bill. Senator Eric Schmitt, R- Glendale, said Pearce's funding formula fix isn't "fair" to all schools.
"So far the only thing on the table is shifting $60 million away from schools, quite frankly that I represent," said Schmitt.
The trouble is that it's difficult politically because without more money into the system it's primarly a zero-sum game. Equal numbers of winners and losers, said Missouri National Education Assocation Legislative Director Otto Fajen.
Thomson concedes his bill wouldn't solve all the problems because there are some factors out of the state's control. Factors like community support and varying attitudes toward education, he says can't be legislated.
"How do we really legislate those things in the community that really are what we need to educate kids?" said Thomson.
But unless the formula is funded at the end of this year, some districts could gain and other could lose millions.
"The first [education] appropriation from the state assembly was $1,999.60. And today it's $3 billion. We will always be challenged to meet the things that we must do, and then the things we must do in addition to ensure that kids have opportunities," said Lankford.
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