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Some lawmakers looking to scrap Foundation Formula

March 20, 2003
By: Heather J. Carlson
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Some Missouri lawmakers are calling for a massive overhaul of the state's funding system for K-12 education.

A handful of Republican and Democratic legislators have said they want to scrap the current Foundation Formula -- the complex mathematical equation used by the state to disperse state funding to public school districts -- in favor of a new approach.

"There's no equity left in the formula," said Sen. Doyle Childers, R-Reeds Springs. "It's been tinkered with so much it's out of whack."

This coalition of lawmakers, which includes Childers, hopes to draft a new formula in time for the 2004 legislative session, said Senate Education Committee Chairman Bill Foster, R-Poplar Bluff. During the summer, an informal group of lawmakers plans to hire an education consultant and meet with representatives from statewide education associations.

Possible funding changes include abolishing the Foundation Formula and replacing it with a straight per-pupil funding system, Foster said.

Per-pupil distriction is an idea that has been pushed by some Republicans.

Not all legislators agree, however, that the formula even needs to be changed.

Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said the formula helps establish equity between poor and wealthy school districts. Changes to the system, he said, could potentially disrupt that balance and get the state in legal trouble.

Under the current formula, Missouri "has successfully stayed out of the courts for a decade," Graham.

But that legal luck could be running out.

Foster said several school superintendents have warned him that their districts are considering suing the state for not adequately funding education. This threat, he said, makes the need to revise the formula even more urgent.

"Once you get in a lawsuit situation, then it gets more difficult," Foster said. "We should do our job without that pressure."

It was legal pressure in 1992 that led to the current Foundation Formula. More than 100 school districts statewide filed suit against the state arguing that schools were not being funded adequately and equitably, said Department of Education's Associate Commissioner Administrative and Financial Services Gerri Ogle.

A Cole County Circuit Court judge agreed.

In response to the court's decision, lawmakers passed the latest version of Foundation Formula in 1993. The formula takes into account a district's property wealth, average daily student attendance and property tax rate, Ogle said. Districts with high numbers of low-income children are also eligible for additional state funds.

One of the most controversial pieces of the formula is the "hold harmless" clause. It states that a school district can not receive less money per pupil than it did the previous year. This provision generally beneifts wealthier school districts, Ogle said, that would not otherwise qualify for state aid.

During the past 10 years, the formula has undergone numerous changes. Every year, Ogle said, the legislature has approved some revisions to the formula. As a result, she added, today's formula looks quite different than the one approved in 1993.

Despite the formula's intended goal of equalizing education funding, Ogle said, a huge gap remains between the wealthy and poor school districts. District spending ranges from $4,500 per pupil to $13,750 per pupil.

Another problem is fully funding the formula.

The state was unable to provide districts with all the state aid they were eligible for last year. An extra $415 million would be needed to fully fund the formula this year. Given the state's estimated $1 billion deficit, it's unlikely new dollars will be found, Ogle said.

Members of the ad hoc committee have suggested two major changes to the education funding: distribute funds on a per-pupil basis and get rid of the hold harmless clause.

Childers has introduced legislation that would pay all school districts $6,800 per student, regardless of where they live. The bill would also eliminate the hold harmless clause.

"If we're ever going to get to have equal and adequate education, we're going to have to do something like this," Childers said.

But opponents of a straight per-pupil distribution of state aid dollars say this approach would hurt small districts.

"Purely on the basis of student population, your smaller rural districts will lose out," said Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia.

Besides the sharp ideological differences between lawmakers when it comes to the formula, another obstacle stands in the committee's way -- the state's budget crisis, said committee member Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis County. Although he agrees that the formula needs to be revisited, Goode said it costs a lot of money just to get a new formula approved by lawmakers.

In the past, "it's taken a significant amount of money to get people to buy into a new formula," he said.