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Capitol Perspectives: Education Funding – A Legislative Nightmare

Phill Brooks
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One of the biggest problems facing Missouri’s legislature is one of the most byzantine, complex and convoluted issues in state government. And it may be politically unsolvable for 2012.

It’s the legal formula for determining how to split up money for Missouri’s more than 500 school districts. That formula does not treat school districts equally. Some students enjoy a higher level of government funding for their education than students in other districts.

Decades ago, many argued that education funding was not a state problem. With locally elected school boards and locally adopted taxes, they argued that state government did not have a legal responsibility to assure an equal level of education across the state.

It was, some argued, like any other type of local government service financed by local taxpayers. Some cities, for example, have outstanding snow removal efforts, others do not. Some have bus services, others do not.

But that argument for inequities in funding for public schools effectively was tossed out decades ago by the federal courts in the St. Louis and Kansas City school desegregation cases.

Since those decisions, there now is general acceptance that the “Equal Protection Clause” of the U.S. Constitution requires equity in the quality of public education that Missouri’s constitution makes a responsibility for state government.

You would think it would be pretty simple. Just allocate the money on the basis of the number of students in a district. But there is a whole lot more to it than that.

Using the number of students enrolled in a district would reward districts regardless whether students actually attended class. So the formula uses average daily attendance.

An equal amount of money per student does not necessarily equate to an equal level of educational services. Salaries and other costs will vary among regions of the state, so the formula includes something similar to a cost-of-living factor that gives a higher funding level for districts that have to pay more for teacher salaries.

The formula also includes a funding boost for districts with higher percentages of welfare recipients based on the assumption that their are higher educational requirements in districts with a large number of lower income families.

Low property values in a district affect local funding support, so the formula takes that into account. Small districts with just a few hundred students have some of the same overhead costs of larger districts for facilities and administrative support. So, the formula give them a boost too.

Finally there is the “hold harmless” provision of the formula. It essentially prevents a district from suffering a cut in it’s per-student allocation of state funds.

In 2005, Missouri lawmakers adopted a revised formula designed to address inequities in educational support among Missouri’s schools and to assure a more equitable level of per-student effort.

This new formula required lawmakers to appropriate large amounts of extra money to schools over a several period to boost funding for under-funded districts. Extra appropriations were required to implement the formula because the hold-harmless clause prevents taking money from over-funded districts to give to the under-funded districts.

But the economic downturn has prevented the funding increases required to make the new formula work.

All of these factors, and I’ve mentioned only a few, have made the “School Foundation Formula” so complicated that it’s virtually impossible to read the law and figure out what it does.

In order to get some sort of understanding about the impact of a change in the funding formula, lawmakers wait until the Education Department runs a computer program showing how individual districts would be affected by a proposed change. And then, some lawmakers just base their votes on whether schools in their legislative districts gain or lose.

Using that as the basis for legislative action makes this issue a political quagmire. If votes are based simply on whether a legislator’s district wins or loses, there always will be a group whose districts lose. And in the Senate, where the power of the filibuster lets a minority of lawmakers block legislative action, it does not take very many to kill a bill.

“I think sometimes that when you run the numbers you automatically draw the line in the sand. So all those that it would help are automatically for it and all of those it dips into a little bit are automatically against it. And I’m not sure that’s good policy,” said House Education Committee Chair Mike Thompson, R-Maryville.

That’s exactly what happened last year in the Senate when an effort to address the hold-harmless problem could not get to a vote.

I’ve seen that happen for decades in Missouri’s legislature — that lawmakers base their votes on what any change would mean for the specific schools in their districts. Only a few times in all those years have I seen legislative leaders able to surmount that political barrier and make fundamental changes in Missouri’s school funding system.

At the start of the 2012 session, the leaders of Missouri’s General Assembly have made fixing this funding formula a top priority. If they can get it done, it will be an historic accomplishment.

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.

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