A lawsuit claiming the state school funding formula violates the Missouri constitution is before the State Supreme Court.
Two challenges are being mounted to the school funding formula: that state lawmakers used incorrect property assessments in devising the latest formula and that the state isn’t spending nearly enough on public education.
Attorney James Owen represented about 30 school districts, primarily from the St. Louis County area, in his presentation before the court. Owen claimed that the legislature used faulty data on property assessments in 2004. He argued that the incorrect assessments adversely affected the districts he represents, depriving them of state revenue while rewarding districts that raise less of their revenue locally.
Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith asked Owen what would be the remedy for his complaint other than statewide property reassessment. Owen replied that the court should send the issue back to the legislature to fix it.
The other issue is being pushed by slightly more than 200 school districts, which actually filed their lawsuit under the old school funding formula. The initial group was larger. Some districts drop out of the lawsuit when the legislature re-wrote the formula in 2005. The majority of the districts, though, stuck with the complaint and re-filed the lawsuit, essentially maintaining the thrust of their complaint. Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan ruled against the schools.
Attorney Alex Bartlett argued that the state simply isn’t spending enough on public schools. Judge Michael Wolfe questioned Bartlett if he was asking that all school districts receive equal money, because the judge said the state constitution seems to indicate that districts must have equal access to state money, not that they have exactly the same amount of money.
Bartlett told the court the case is important, because it will affect the quality of education in Missouri. He said other states have wrestled with the same issue and the courts in those states have stepped in to provide a judicial mandate to change education funding.
State Solicitor James Layton defended the formula, stating he didn’t appear before the court to apologize for the schools, insisting that Missouri schools provide an excellent education. Layton said the framers of the 1945 Missouri constitution granted broad discretion to the legislature to determine the correct level of school funding and that, "This court should do the same."
Layton estimated that the legislature would have to increase state funding to schools by $1.3 billion to satisfy the districts filing suit, a figure that Bartlett told reporters afterward was on the high side. Layton said a ruling in favor of the schools would force the legislature to shift money away from social services to public educaion.
Layton declined interview requests afterward. Bartlett said the state constitution makes public schools the top priority of state government, not social services.
The court has taken the case under advisement. It will rule later.
Download/listen Brent Martin reports (:60 MP3)
Download/listen Attorneys Owen and Bartlett argue before Supreme Court (30 min MP3)
Download/listen Solicitor Layton addresses State Supreme Court (20 min MP3)
Download/listen Attorney Bartlett responds to Supreme Court (5 min MP3)