Missouri’s school funding formula has been upheld by the State Supreme Court . In a near unanimous decision, the court turned back a legal challenge mounted by more than 200 school districts which claimed that the formula for funding local schools was inadequate and inequitable. The court, though, ruled that the legislature met its constitutional requirements in approving a new school funding formula in 2005.
Judge Mary Russell wrote the opinion. Judge Michael Wolff concurred in part and dissented in part.
The school districts formed the Committee for Educational Equality and filed a lawsuit in Cole County Circuit Court in Jefferson City. The committee initially filed suit against the old funding formula, but amended their petition when the legislature approved a new formula in 2005. The school districts claimed the formula didn’t allocate enough money to fund public schools. A smaller group of school districts, primarily from the St. Louis County area, challenged the legislature’s use of property assessments from 2004. It argued the assessments compiled by the State Tax Commission were deeply flawed.
The districts lost before Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan who heard the case in Jefferson City. They appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in May.
Judge Russell affirmed the decision of Callahan, concluding "…this Court finds no error in the trial court’s findings upholding the constitutional validity of SB287’s school funding formula."
In her opinion, Russell found that the legislature met the school funding threshold of 25% contained in the Missouri Constitution.
"Plaintiffs additionally cannot show that the constitutional provisions they invoke restrict the legislature’s discretion in shaping the school funding formula. And, in the absence of a constitutional bar, it is clear that the legislature has plenary power to act in crafting the school funding formula," Russell wrote in the opinion.
SB 287 grew from the work of the Joint Interim Committee on Education, which reviewed the spending habits of Missouri’s most successful school districts. From that study, it based its recommendations on a per-pupil spending formula, rather than a tax-base formula as had been the case previously.
Russell dismissed an issued raised by the Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools that claimed the legislature relied on faulty tax assessments from 2004 in creating the new funding formula. The coalition, representing about 30 districts from the St. Louis area, argued that the State Tax Commission badly bungled tax assessments in 2004, providing legislators with faulty data upon which to base a school funding formula.
"Although judicial review of legislative enactments is fundamental to our system of checks and balances, hindsight evaluation of the quality of data on which the legislature relied is not appropriate in this case," wrote Russell.
It was on that point that Judge Wolff dissented. Wolff faulted the state’s present property tax structure in a separate opinion, finding that it falls short of constitutional standards. Wolff wrote that the legislature should not have relied on a property-tax-based system that has a specific constitutional problem.
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