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Jury is still out on new school funding plan

Lack of money makes it all smoke and mirrors, critics say

By Matthew Franck

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

5/15/05

In truth, an $800 million school funding plan approved last week could more cynically be described as an unfinished prototype with an unknown fuel source.

No one knows how far the plan will go toward ending a lawsuit by 257 school districts who have sued the state demanding a fairer system. And no one can say whether the state will have the money to pay for the plan, even amid the most generous economic forecasts.

All of which leads to the question of just what the Legislature accomplished this past session when it replaced the state's method for distributing nearly $2.5 billion in school funds.

Supporters of the new plan describe its passage as nothing short of monumental.

They point to the fact that other states rarely overhaul their school funding systems without being ordered to do so by a court. Barring that pressure, legislators are often paralyzed by the political taboo of crafting a plan that gives more money to some school districts than others.

Sen. Charlie Shields, the architect of Missouri's new school funding plan, said the bill's passage is a testament of a compromise between competing suburban and rural interests.

Shields, R-St. Joseph, said the Legislature ultimately rallied around a greater good by supporting a dramatic shift in school funding philosophy.

The new plan establishes a minimum base of $6,117 as an adequate level of spending for each pupil. The figure is based on the spending levels of 113 school districts deemed successful by the state. The districts earned high marks for improving performance on test scores, graduation rates and other state academic standards.

The current formula, in contrast, seeks to equalize the amount of property tax wealth behind each child. But critics have said it does nothing to guarantee what's adequate. Republicans also dislike the fact that as property values have risen, so has the cost of the formula, which now exceeds what the state can afford by $900 million.

Shields says the new approach controls growth while remaining grounded in what students need.

"It's not some pie in the sky formula that can never be funded, " he said.

New framework, no funding

Democrats have seized on that kind of comment, especially since the plan offers no funding source. Instead, Republicans hope economic growth will cover the $800 million tab. Even so, the entire costs wouldn't be paid out for at least seven years.

Rep. Michael Corcoran, D-St. Ann, said the delay will leave children waiting years until their schools can provide them minimally adequate funding.

"You have a pupil going an entire school career without a fully funded formula, " he said.

Others say the phase-in could hurt the state's defense of its funding method in court.

That's because for the first time the Legislature has defined what an adequate education costs, and yet has chosen to not pay for it immediately.

That flaw could be used in court, says Alex Bartlett, a Jefferson City lawyer who is leading the current lawsuit against the state.

Shields, meanwhile, is unapologetic about passing the formula framework without the funding.

He said passing a tax increase concurrently with a new formula would be politically impossible. Lawmakers and the public, he said, simply wouldn't support the kind of new tax that funnels $100 per pupil to some school districts and far more to others.

Others, however, question whether Shields' strategy will work. Some Democrats say school administrators already view the new formula as mere calculation with no cash.

Bayless School District in south St. Louis County, for example, stands to get $3,462 per pupil over seven years. But Superintendent Maureen Clancy-May is concerned about where the money will come from. She said she plans to stand by districts in the lawsuit.

Some people predict the coalition that helped pass the plan could erode by the time it takes effect next year.

Many district officials are only now seeing figures on what their districts will get. They are certain to compare funding levels in neighboring districts.

Dozens of amendments

Democrats say differences of opinion on the plan were muffled on the House and Senate floor as Republicans truncated debate. During 10 hours of House debate last week, members considered only a fraction of the dozens of amendments filed.

"The fact that we had 74 amendments tells me that we had problems with this bill, " said Rep. Jim Whorton, D-Trenton.

Critics say they expect disagreements over the plan to amplify over the year.

Rural school officials, they say, will continue to complain about extra money in the formula to help suburban districts pay higher teacher costs. Suburban schools, in turn, will demand more accurate property tax assessments in rural areas. School districts with low tax rates, meanwhile, may grouse at the fact that the plan pressures them to raise their tax levy.

Shields said he's willing to revise the plan next year. But he said he believes the new formula's fundamental principles will endure. He's among the few in Jefferson City who believes the new formula could influence the current court case.

"I would guess that a lot of plaintiffs will take a look at the new formula and say that their needs are being addressed, " he said.

Bartlett said that's not happening so far among the districts he's representing.

But Shields said the goal of his bill said the goal was never to end legal battles. He said he's resigned to the fact that Missouri's school funding formula will likely always be challenged by at least one plaintiff in court.

That's a prospect that frustrates one of Shields' colleagues.

"This doesn't stop anything, " said Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit. "We're going to be litigating into the future, and that thought is troubling to me."

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