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Schools plead funding case to state Supreme Court

Kelly Wiese//May 18, 2009

Schools plead funding case to state Supreme Court

Kelly Wiese//May 18, 2009

It was a day in court that has been anticipated for more than five years.

About 200 school districts sued the state in 2004 over education funding, lost at trial and Monday brought their case for more money before the Supreme Court.

The arguments were short on drama, but the ultimate result will have a major impact statewide.

The Supreme Court judges largely allowed the attorneys to make their arguments, interrupting sparingly, and didn’t give many indications of which side they found persuasive.

The Committee for Educational Equality’s attorney, Alex Bartlett, argued that the state constitution requires the state to provide an adequate education to students, and Missouri hasn’t done so. The school districts argue the way the state distributes education money is unfair and inadequate, giving students in some districts a much better education than others.

Bartlett, of Husch Blackwell Sanders in Jefferson City, said the phrasing in Missouri’s constitution that public schools are necessary for a “general diffusion of knowledge” means the state must provide an adequate education. He said courts elsewhere, including the Texas Supreme Court, have found as much with similar language in their constitution.

Solicitor General James Layton, arguing for the state, said the schools take that language too far.

“That’s the reason. But it is not in itself a substantive requirement,” he said.

The state argues the only constitutional requirement is that at least 25 percent of state revenue be directed to schools, a standard that has been met. Anything beyond that, it says, is in the Legislature’s discretion.

Bartlett counters that the 25 percent is merely a floor in funding and does not consider whether that is enough to provide fair and adequate funding for students.

The state won at the trial level, with Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan basically finding in 2007 that the only requirement spelled out in Missouri’s constitution is the 25 percent threshold, and that standard has been met.

The state’s brief said the court should not get involved in the issue.

“This court should adopt the political question doctrine, refuse to insert the courts into the inherently subjective and constantly moving world of school finance” and reject the schools’ claim, Layton argued in the brief.

Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff said the system is set up so some schools have an easier time providing for students than others do.

“The state’s law should not rig the game in favor of one set of districts over another,” he said.

The lawsuit and trial attacked everything from the disparity in funding per student among schools to dilapidated buildings to the need for preschool programs.

Part of the reason for such wide variation in spending is that schools are largely funded by local property taxes, and some districts have a richer base to draw from or an area more willing or able to raise taxes for schools.

But the Legislature rewrote the formula for distributing state money to schools in 2005, aiming to move to a system less driven by property values and more by the amount needed to educate a child. However, even that system presumes local districts assess property at a given rate, even though some charge a higher rate while others haven’t reached that level.

Another set of districts, largely from suburban areas, also joined the lawsuit. They argue the Legislature relied on faulty data in drafting the funding formula. They say some counties assess property accurately while others vastly undervalue their land, and hence get more state education money than they’re rightly due.

“You cannot rely on 2004 figures that are wrong,” argued James Owen, of McCarthy Leonard & Kaemmerer in Chesterfield, for the Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools.

Judge Richard Teitelman recused himself from hearing the case. Southern District Court of Appeals Judge John Parrish heard arguments in his place.

-Jason Rosenbaum contributed to this report.

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