Missouri School Districts Gamble … and Lose
On October 17, Judge Richard G. Callahan rendered a decision in the case brought by many of Missouri’s school districts alleging that the State of Missouri does not adequately fund public education. Judge Callahan concluded that the state is meeting its constitutional obligation to spend 25 percent of the state budget on K-12 public education.
Legal proceedings are not cheap. According to an Associated Press article written by David Lieb, two organizing bodies of Missouri’s school districts The Committee for Educational Equality and the Coalition to Fund Excellent Schools have spent $1.9 million and $700,000 respectively. In addition, the St. Louis School District spent $600,000. Overall, plaintiffs have spent $3.2 million in trying this case.
At the time the case started, the school districts would have thought of this as an investment. In this context, the return is abysmal. After spending $3.2 million, the additional funding after enforcing Judge Callahan’s ruling will be zero. So, from the school district’s perspective, the return is negative-100 percent, so far. Perhaps it is too early to measure the returns. Often, it takes time to realize the gains from such an investment. I cannot accurately forecast how this trial will affect Missouri’s legislature. Hence, it is possible that the school districts will realize significant gains in the future.
What is the likelihood that Missouri’s General Assembly will feel compelled to increase their contribution to K-12 education? In my view, the answer is that they will not. For the sake of disclosure, I should mention that I computed the Legislature’s obligation for this trial, presenting evidence that the state was more-than-meeting its constitutional minimum. Indeed, my independent calculations indicated that the state spent more than 35 percent of its discretionary budget on K-12 education in each of the last three years. Based on my calculations, it is difficult to imagine that the Legislature will feel compelled to increase its contribution to elementary and secondary education, given that it is spending more than one-third of its discretionary budget on this activity. By this reasoning, the most likely event is that K-12 education will receive the same funding, as a percentage of the state’s general revenue, as it did last year.
Thus, unless Missourians want to specify an even larger fraction of state resources to funding elementary and secondary education, the return to this trial investment will not improve much from this year’s utter failure during the next few years. In economics, the question starts with the opportunity cost of the resources spent on this trial. Even if the per-district expenditures are a small fraction, the relevant question is whether the school districts would have had a higher return by spending those resources on producing education. It is hard to imagine that the return would be negative-100 percent if spent on books, teachers, science equipment, etc. Elementary economics tells us that resources should flow to their highest valued use. It is time for school districts to apply this logic.