More on the Education Funding Lawsuit
As Sarah has already noted, the Missouri Supreme Court yesterday brought an end to the lawsuit in which half of the state’s school districts claimed that the Constitution required taxpayers to give them as much as $1.3 billion extra dollars every school year. The court ruled against the districts, including several important holdings.
First, the court unanimously agreed that the state government is meeting its two major constitutional obligations where educational funding is concerned, providing a system of free public schools and allocating at least 25 percent of state revenue to their upkeep. Second, the court unanimously agreed that “equitable education spending” is not a fundamental right secured by either the state or federal constitutions, and so the state’s funding formula must be upheld because the districts failed to prove that it was irrational. Third, the court ruled that insofar as the Missouri Constitution forbids the state government to create unfunded mandates for local authorities, the proper remedy is to relieve the local authorities of the responsibility to fulfill those mandates — not to order the state to pony up the money for them. And, finally, the judges ruled that the legislature did not act arbitrarily in relying on information provided to them by the State Tax Commission when fashioning the education funding formula that was at issue in this case.
Judge Michael Wolff’s voice was the only one raised in partial dissent, communicated through a fascinating, heartfelt separate opinion that is lengthier than the majority opinion. If you have an interest in either law or education, I think it is well worth reading. The judge agrees with the majority opinion on most (if not all) of the above points, but believes that the funding formula is unconstitutional because it permits counties to adopt different standards for the assessment for taxable property. In Judge Wolff’s opinion, the result is that “counties where property assessments fall well below market value are rewarded with increased state funding for schools.” He remains studiously agnostic as to which parts of the state might be said to be benefiting from this arrangement. That question, he suggests, should be answered by the legislature — but he maintains that regardless of the beneficiaries, the unevenness of assessments should trigger the state’s constitutional obligation to see that assessments are equalized across the state.
To be sure, the majority opinion did not disagree with Judge Wolff’s legal reasoning regarding the equalization of assessments. Rather, they (correctly) noted that the plaintiffs in this case had not brought that claim before them and, thus, resolution of that issue must wait until it has been presented and argued fully.
I think that Judge Wolff may have a valid point about inconsistencies in assessments across the state, but the broader thrust of his opinion is that the legislature has earned little of his respect because it has failed to adopt fundamental reforms that might greatly improve education in this state, and that the fact that some school districts are given far less funding per student than others remains tremendously unfair.
Judge Wolff apparently accepts the research presented by our own Dr. Michael Podgursky in his acknowledgment that “there is not a direct relationship between a school district’s money and its performance,” although he goes on to suggest that “money is not irrelevant … money is needed to buy the academic leadership, the teaching staff, the time on task for mastery of basic subjects and other resources needed for educational enrichment that can produce optimal outcomes.” This might or might not be true, given that a number of useful reforms might save money, thus allowing the excess to be reallocated into longer school days or higher pay for teachers that go above and beyond the current call of duty. But, ultimately, I share Judge Wolff’s desire to see a true sea change in the way education is undertaken in this state. Perhaps he’ll be open to some of the reforms that we have suggested!