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Missouri Precedent Defends Education Funding Adequacy for Taxpayers

The Missouri Supreme Court upheld today the circuit court ruling on the long-contested Funding Formula Adequacy Trial, definitively establishing that Missouri’s current public school funding formula meets the state’s obligations and dismissing arguments brought by almost half of Missouri’s public school districts that funding was unconstitutionally distributed and inadequate, and that additional spending was needed.

In 2007, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Richard Callahan ruled against the school district plaintiffs in favor of the state and 3 taxpayer-intervenors.  Today’s concurrent ruling comes after the school districts appealed that decision to the State Supreme Court, and ends the long, expensive court battle.

The decision that Missouri is meeting its obligation to fund public schools is prudent and saves taxpayers from shouldering billions of additional blank-check state spending for public education.  It has, however, cost both taxpayers and students.  School district plaintiffs spent taxpayer dollars, and taxpayers also support state legal services that defended Missouri’s formula.  Students lost out on millions of dollars that could have been spent in a classroom, but were instead spent in the courtroom.

This trial and the resounding dismissal of the plaintiff districts’ claims offer several distinct lessons as Missouri pursues excellence in education.

The State Supreme Court will not be the “good cop” and circumvent the powers of the legislative branch to appropriate funds. When local tax levies and lobbying efforts failed to change the funding formula to the extent that these school districts desired and they turned to Constitutional arguments to secure more funding, the court had this to say:

“Notably, the introductory clause… concerning the ‘diffusion of knowledge’ outlines the purpose and subject of Missouri’s public education system. But, it provides no specific directive or standard for how the State must accomplish a ‘diffusion of knowledge.’ Plaintiffs are attempting to read a separate funding requirement into [the clause] that would require the legislature to provide “adequate” education funding in excess of the 25-percent requirement… Such language does not exist….

Reading a free-standing obligation to provide certain school funding into the introductory language… would be contrary to the specific flexibility afforded the legislature…”

More money does not equal better education. Missouri cannot spend its way to excellent, or even adequate performance.   State funding is merely one aspect of the framework set up to house public education: it is how we as a state move resources toward the goal of educating our children.  Those resources can be spent wisely or poorly.  They can be spent on programs, materials and staff that educate effectively, but they may be spent on methods that don’t work.  The structure into which we put our resources is at least as important as how much we spend.

A new era of education reform is coming. Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke in St. Louis last week, and presented a new way of thinking about funding education: tie it to reforms that work.

Announcing billions of dollars in grants available for education, Duncan gave caveats that grants would be awarded where innovation was the driving force. He stressed that Missouri should consider having a portfolio of options to offer children with different needs and strengths.

“In St. Louis, the city and Missouri the state has a chance to compete for unprecedented discretionary resources,” said Duncan. “In every one of the those applications, we’re going to look for capacity, we’re going to look for a visionary plan, we’re going to look for someone who wants to challenge the status quo and we’re going to look for folks who are willing to collaborate, and if St. Louis and Missouri can do that, you have the chance to do something very special in the years ahead.”

More than anything, the conclusion of the Adequacy Trial offers us a clear opportunity to shift our focus to a new way of thinking about improving Missouri education and also the way we can fund that goal.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/changedotgov/ / CC BY 2.0

Missouri Supreme Court Opinion available HERE.