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Education Reporter

Missouri School Districts Sue for Funding Increase

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Committee for Education Equality v. State of Missouri went to court in Jefferson City this month, bringing the issue of school funding into the courts in yet another state. Similar suits, seeking judge-mandated funding increases for public schools, have been filed in 44 other states.

In these lawsuits, school boards and teachers' unions demand that judges declare current funding levels unconstitutional, based on key words in state constitutions: most frequently, the word "adequate" or the word "equity." Numerous judges across the nation have acquiesced, and have ordered dollar amounts of funding that they consider adequate or equitable. In 2005, for example, a judge ordered the Kansas legislature to put $800 million in additional funds into the schools. Texas, Wyoming, Arizona, and other states have also experienced major financial consequences from such cases in recent years.

Like the others, the Missouri suit hinges on a few key words in the state Constitution; in this case, the words are "a general diffusion of knowledge." The Committee for Education Equality, representing 260 school districts, claims that current funding does not allow for this "general diffusion" to take place.

The Missouri Constitution also specifies a proportion of the state's budget that should go to education. In fact, lawyers fighting the suit on behalf of three Missouri taxpayers argued that the suit was unnecessary, since the legislature already spends the required 25% of its budget on schools. Judge Richard Callahan did not rule formally on the motion to dismiss the case, saying he will evaluate the constitutional issues during the six-week trial.

The Missouri Legislature adopted a new school spending plan in 2005, partly in response to the school funding lawsuit. This plan called for the state to spend $800 million in additional funding for education over the course of seven years. Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields expressed frustration at the lawsuit's continuation. "What these school districts would define as adequate would cost the state $2 billion," he said. "I just don't think that's realistic."

Also at issue in the case is the relationship between property values and local school tax revenue. 25 wealthier districts among the 260 represented want more funding, but want to prevent an outcome that would reapportion money from wealthy districts to poor ones.

The outcome of the Missouri case will be especially interesting, in light of the surprising results of similar litigation in New York and Massachusetts.

Over the course of 13 years, judges in the lower New York courts had approved the demands of New York teachers' unions, and ordered increases of up to $5.6 billion per year in new state funding. The case was Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York. New York City public schools already spend more than $11,000 per student per year.

Then, at the end of 2006, New York's highest court surprised everyone by reversing the lower state court decisions, and limiting to $1.93 billion the additional taxpayers' funds that the state must spend each year on New York City public schools. The court not only declined to order more funding; it also made a strong statement through these words of Judge Eugene F. Pigott, Jr.

"The judiciary has a duty to defer to the legislature in matters of policymaking, particularly in a matter so vital as education financing, which has as well a core element of local control. We have neither the authority, nor the ability, nor the will, to micromanage education financing." Judge Pigott further affirmed, "devising a state budget is a prerogative of the legislature and executive; the judiciary should not usurp this power."

In 2005, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (the same court that ordered same-sex marriage licenses) handed down a similar decision, tossing out a lawsuit that the legislature put more money into the public schools.

It remains to be seen whether the Missouri case will affirm legislative authority, or instead exercise judicial supremacy in matters of school funding.

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