Editorial: Missouri's promise to its children is empty and unfulfilled

2013-08-09T06:00:00Z 2014-03-21T16:11:05Z Editorial: Missouri's promise to its children is empty and unfulfilledBy the Editorial Board stltoday.com

Eleven days ago, Alex Bartlett died in Jefferson City at the age of 75. We would like to have known his thoughts about the collision of events that has spurred more than 2,600 students in north St. Louis County to seek higher quality schools elsewhere in St. Louis or St. Charles counties.

The firebrand Jefferson City attorney might have said this:

“The fortuitous residence of their parents, rather than their individual abilities, efforts, or aspirations, controls the quality of education these children can receive.”

In fact, he did say that, in a lawsuit he filed in 2004 on behalf of 251 Missouri school districts who were alleging that Missouri’s method of financing public schools was inadequate and inequitable. It was true in 2004 and it’s still true today, and it’s one big reason for the student-transfer uproar today.

For a variety of reasons, but chief among them the poverty in the city’s inner-ring suburbs, the school districts of Normandy and Riverview Gardens have failed to keep up with their neighbors in further-flung white suburbs. By any measure, students in Normandy and Riverview Gardens have not been receiving the same access to high-quality instruction that their neighbors in areas with higher property values have received.

This was the fundamental argument behind the two lawsuits Mr. Bartlett filed, first in 1990 and again in 2004.

Alex Bartlett fought many a good fight. His battles with Gov. John Ashcroft might have cost him a federal judgeship. He challenged the state’s concealed-carry law. But his legacy will be his insistence that Missouri live up to its constitutional requirement to provide a “free public education” to its students.

To some degree, Mr. Bartlett won his battles but lost the war.

He won his first lawsuit, when then-Cole County Circuit Court Judge Byron Kinder ruled in 1993 that the old formula for funding state schools created inherent inequities. At the time, Clayton schools spent about $13,000 per student, while some other school districts in the state were spending as little as $4,700 per pupil. Judge Kinder ruled that this “golden-to-God-awful” inequity was unconstitutional.

So lawmakers improved the formula, seeking a fairer distribution of state education spending between districts that have higher property values with those that don’t. The resulting combination of state and local funding was intended to give students in poor areas an opportunity to have the same education as those in wealthy districts.

The state also increased school funding by about $300 million.

But by 2004, the inequities were still obvious and Mr. Bartlett sued again. Again, lawmakers rewrote the law, the one on the books now. Again, the state added some more money. The so-called “foundation formula” is better than it was. But inequities persist.

The proof of that is what’s happening now with the St. Louis region’s student transfers.

In some cases, the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts will be paying more per-pupil tuition to the receiving districts than they have been paying to educate students in their own schools. It is entirely possible that Normandy will go bankrupt while Clayton reaps a windfall for educating Normandy students, without having to build new buildings or even hire many new teachers.

It’s the perfect metaphor for what is wrong with school funding in Missouri.

Missouri spends a smaller percentage of its overall budget on K-12 education now than it did when Mr. Bartlett filed his lawsuits. Residents in affluent districts like Ladue and Parkway have been willing to raise taxes on expensive real estate to fund good schools.

Meanwhile, in districts where property is less expensive, tax hikes either can’t keep up or they fail, as a proposed hike did in the Ferguson-Florissant School District on Tuesday. The rich will get richer and the poor are stranded in crumbling schools.

Changing the way Missouri funds schools would be a complicated, painful process that is likely out of reach in the age of a term-limited, hyper-partisan Legislature. There are few lawmakers who understand the complicated “foundation formula” that balances local property tax with state aid in an attempt to make sure every school district meets an ever-changing definition of “adequate” funding.

By the Legislature’s own definition, what it is doing now is inadequate. When lawmakers rewrote the school-funding law in 2005, they tied adequate funding to a per-pupil amount averaged from a group of school districts considered successful. Then it failed to fully fund its own formula for what it deemed adequate.

That led the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education last year to rob from Peter to pay Paul, pulling millions from various districts in an attempt to equalize funding.

It’s a mess.

There must be a better way, and it starts with more funding.

There are numerous ways to fund schools. While most states have some form of an equalizing formula, five states fully fund schools from state coffers.

During the last major school funding debate in 2005, a Republican state representative, Ed Robb of Columbia, suggested rolling back all school property taxes in the state and raising income taxes to cover the tab.

There’s no way that will happen in the tax-cut-happy Missouri Legislature of 2013, but it’s that sort of out-of-the-box thinking that is going to be necessary to ultimately fulfill what was a very worthy goal of Mr. Bartlett’s lawsuits.

“The bottom line is school districts, be they large or small, are hurting,” the attorney argued before the Cole County Circuit Court in 2007. “They are not able to provide an adequate or equitable education.”

That was true then and it’s true today.

During the 1875 debate over Missouri’s first constitution, one delegate argued that state money should be distributed like “dew from Heaven.”

“The children of the State should have its benefits equally, without regard to whether they are children of the rich, or of the poor, whether a particular locality is a wealthy or a poor locality,” said Westley Halliburton, a delegate from Sullivan County. “The money is to be spread abroad equally, whether it is paid equally or not.”

That’s the Missouri promise, made to all of the state’s children, on behalf of its founders.

Today, for the children who stepped on a bus at sunrise to take them to a school more than 20 miles away, that promise is empty and unfulfilled.

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