Missouri Supreme Court upholds school funding formula

JEFFERSON CITY | Missouri’s school-funding formula was upheld Tuesday by the state Supreme Court against a long-running challenge that claimed schools have been shortchanged and treated unfairly.

The high court’s decision affirms a 2007 ruling by a Cole County judge in a case brought by fewer than half of Missouri’s 523 public school districts. The schools that sued claimed the state fails to spend enough money on schools and distributes that money inequitably, at least partly because of a flawed local property-tax system.

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that education is not a fundamental right under either the federal or state constitution’s equal-protection clauses. Thus, “there is no constitutional basis for implying an equal per-pupil spending requirement,” the court said.

During arguments in May, an attorney for a school coalition called the Committee for Educational Equality had said the claims of inadequate funding hinged on a vague constitutional provision.

That constitutional section states: “A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the general assembly shall establish and maintain free public schools” for people up to age 21.

The Supreme Court said Tuesday that the phrase “diffusion of knowledge” is merely an introductory clause that “is purely aspirational in nature” and does not add to a separate constitutional requirement that 25 percent of state revenues go to public schools. The state has met that threshold, the court said.

School districts originally sued the state in January 2004. The next year, Missouri lawmakers changed the school-funding formula so it is linked less to local property values and taxes and more to a per-pupil spending target. Although some schools dropped out of the lawsuit, most pressed ahead with the lawsuit.

The legal battle cost more than $6 million, most of which was financed by either the public school districts or the state.