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Committee approves new philosophy -- but not mechanism -- for school funding

February 12, 2004
By: Alex Yalen
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY -- A joint legislative committee has adopted a philosophy -- but not a mechanism -- for funding Missouri public schools.

The Joint Committee on Education Funding approved Wednesday night a report saying that future state aid distribution should be done on the basis of "student need."

But they did not propose specific legislation to make the Foundation Formula conform to the suggestion, saying it was too early in the process. And the committee also did not entirely rule out pieces of the current system that rewards districts based on the tax wealth they generate.

"I do not favor moving away from the reward-for-effort concept," said Rep. Bob Johnson, R-Jackson County. "We're looking at a situation where many students will get less state aid than they do now."

Some said that the committee's seemingly contradictory move simply underscores the complexity and contentiousness of the school funding battle.

"I think this report shows that there is not one single solution," said Mike Wood, director of government relations for the Missouri State Teachers Association. "Coming to a consensus is going to be very difficult."

The differences between the present system and the committee's proposal are significant. In its present form, the state grants funding through a complex reward system that emphasizes creation and use of local money.

But new method, the committee's report says, would help reduce the bias towards local tax wealth because it distributes money based on need, not taxation ability.

While some state education organizations support placing increased focus on student needs, they are also concerned that it could detract from local motivation to fund schools.

"Both (philosophies) have strengths," said Otto Fajen, legislative director for the Missouri National Education Association. "Obviously there are advantages to rewarding local commitment."

The report's suggestions could face two major challenges. First, it is unclear how much money the state would have to spend to incorporate the new methodology, said school funding expert John Jones.

"It may not change at all, but the odds are it will increase state costs," Jones said. "That's because we're still underfunding special education."

Second, it would likely cause certain districts considered "held harmless" to lose significant amounts of money. Those districts -- by law -- cannot lose any state aid. But the committee plan to utillize need-based funding would require districts to give up their protected status.

Eliminating that, said committee chair Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, is a political impossiblity, and something that the plan would have to work around.

Once the report is filed, Shields said, the committee's work will be far from over. They still have much research to do, he said, and he left open the possibility that the committee may propose legislation offering minor changes to the current formula.

"It's like we've completed the undergraduate part of our education," Shields said Wednesday night. "And now it's time to move to graduate school."