Columbia School District Should Abandon Frivolous Lawsuit
To date, Columbia Public Schools has spent roughly $82,000 on the “adequacy” lawsuit, despite the fact it is a no-win venture for the community. Several other plaintiff schools have come to a similar conclusion and have declined to join the appeal. CPS should do the same.
The plaintiff school districts are spending tax dollars to hire private law firms to sue the Legislature — i.e., us — and the attorney general’s office has used tax dollars to hire a private law firm to defend the Legislature. The cost so far, just for private law firms, is more than $4.6 million, and that does not count the time of the attorney general’s staff lawyers or the court. I find it remarkable that some members of our school board think this is an appropriate way to spend education revenues. During the 10 years I spent as chairman of the University of Missouri–Columbia Economics Department, it never occurred to me it would be acceptable to use some of my department budget to sue the Legislature for more money, even though MU is also mentioned in the Missouri Constitution.
Issues of propriety aside, let us turn to some specific reasons I believe CPS is ill-advised to continue its participation in this lawsuit.
First, it would be difficult for the plaintiffs to have lost this case more completely. Judge Richard Callahan’s decision is clear, concise, and logical. The “adequacy” aspect of the lawsuit was based on the Missouri Constitution’s requirement for free public schools and the stipulation that the Legislature must devote at least 25 percent of revenues to that end. Judge Callahan ruled both requirements are being met easily. The plaintiffs asked the judge to read something into the state Constitution that is not there, and this he refused to do. Of course, the notion that a given level of spending can be reliably associated with a given level of MAP achievement — “adequacy” — was never established by the plaintiffs because it is statistically impossible to do so, a point made repeatedly by the three economists, including myself, who testified for the defense.
Second, as the magnitude of this defeat becomes more widely recognized, the “tax base” of paying plaintiff districts is shrinking. Some major districts have publicly dropped out of the case, including St. Joseph, Liberty, and Francis Howell. More are expected to follow. As the number of participating districts falls, Columbia Public Schools and Columbia taxpayers will be left to bear a larger share of the litigation bill. That might make narrow sense if there were reason to believe that, ultimately, there is something in this for Columbia, but that is the biggest folly of all.
Let’s begin with the “equity” issue. Under the current system, CPS fares well. We are a relatively wealthy district that enrolls 1.5 percent of Missouri public school students, yet receives 1.7 percent of state K-12 funding. Our per-pupil spending is higher than the state average. What can CPS hope to gain in an “equity” lawsuit? Is a Cole County judge likely to find Columbia schools relatively impoverished?
Now, let us consider “adequacy” — the argument that almost all districts are underfunded. The plaintiffs are asking for roughly $1 billion in additional state funds for K-12 education. If they are successful and the Supreme Court tells the Legislature it must spend $1 billion more on public education, that money must be found somewhere in the state budget. Given the Hancock limits on raising taxes, we must ask lawsuit proponents where they propose to obtain these additional funds for K-12 education.
With tax increases off the table, K-12 gains must come at the expense of the rest of the state budget. One billion dollars more for K-12 implies a 21-percent cut in spending for the non-K-12 budget. Assuming those cuts are across the board, the MU budget would be cut by 21 percent as well, in which case MU would lose more than the entire state funding of CPS. Whatever the size of the boost in K-12 spending, every dollar CPS would gain through this litigation implies at least a $2.25 cut in the MU budget. This assumes Medicaid is subjected to the 21-percent cut. If Medicaid escapes the across-the-board cut, the MU loss is even larger.
Along with making higher education even less affordable, a plaintiff victory must lead to cuts in a wide range of state-provided social services. The primary recipients of those programs, poor families and children, would end up worse off. We elect legislators to make these difficult spending decisions and to balance the complicated tradeoffs. That is not the job of our courts.
The most likely outcome of the appeal is that CPS simply will have wasted tax dollars on frivolous litigation. Our school board, however, is playing with fire. In the remote chance the plaintiffs win on appeal, the broader Columbia community might well be seriously harmed because of large cuts to the MU budget. It is time to stop participating in this nonsense and spend our education tax dollars on education — and not on $250-an-hour legal fees.
Michael Podgursky is a professor of economics at the University of Missouri–Columbia and a member of the Show-Me Institute board of directors.