JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's Senate began its long-awaited debate Tuesday on what the state should do for its urban schools once the federal courts quit telling the state what to do.
At issue is approximately $170 million the state is being ordered to pay Kansas City and St. Louis city schools to assist in desegregation and school improvements.
Depending on which of two proposals is adopted, Columbia schools could gain a little or a lot - as much as $4 million boost in state aid.
The proposal before the Senate is sponsored by Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler.
His proposal would earmark desegregation money to districts based on the poverty level of the student body. This would mean more money for St. Louis and Kansas City and a relatively small amount for Columbia and suburban districts.
As alternative, Senate Education Committee Chairman Ted House, D-St. Charles, proposes distributing the desegregation funds across the state on a more equalized basis. That approach would provide more funds to suburban schools and rural-area schools like Columbia.
Essentially, he would use the already established school-funding formula to distribute the money. Caskey's bill, on the other hand, would distribute the money outside the state formula.
"I don't believe you care one bit about the St. Louis and Kansas City schools," Caskey charged to House in a debate that grew increasingly hostile.
Under Caskey's proposal a district's poverty level would be determined by the percentage of students on the free and reduced lunch program.
Columbia would only gain about $100,000 under Caskey's bill. St. Louis city and Kansas City, combined, would receive nearly $100 million.
More than 70 percent of the students in those districts have free and reduced lunch plans. The condition is the same for 24 percent of students in Columbia public schools.
After 20 years of desegregation court orders, the federal court ruled last week, the state can end its desegregation payments to Kansas City schools in 1999. Although the St. Louis case is still pending, officials expect a similar conclusion there.
In anticipation of the court withdrawals, St. Louis business leaders have been warning the urban schools would suffer catastrophic consequences if the extra state funding were to evaporate suddenly.
"If we're going to send money back to Kansas City and St. Louis, then we should demand a commitment to reform," House said in an interview last week. "It is unfair to taxpayers to shift money back with very little accountability. Where is the evidence to show that is justified?"
House said provisions in the bill that would give the state a stronger oversight role are not enough to assure the money is being used to improve education for at-risk students.
U.S. District Judge Russell Clark admitted that the desegregation state funding he ordered resulted in a top-heavy administration that has left much of the money unaccounted for.
Desegregation funding over the past twenty years has reached nearly $1.8 billion. Critics say the Kansas City district has grown far worse. Minorities have not scored better on standardized tests and continue to fair poorly.
"This tells us that money alone is not the solution," House said. "(Senate Bill) 360 would simply put the money back into those schools." House contends that more incentives are needed for the urban districts to use the money wisely.
But Missouri State Teachers Association Director DeeAnn Aull said, "More time, more effort and more money are necessary to educate a student in poverty. When you have (at-risk) children in your classroom, a teacher is dealing with children's needs for food and sleep. It is difficult to get them to focus on learning. The costs are simply higher."
These two positions set the tone for a legislative showdown that could envelop the General Assembly in an urban-suburban-rural clash in the closing weeks of the 1997 session.
"You cannot justify giving lots of money for St. Louis and Kansas City students and not as much for rural students," decried Sen. John Russell, R-Lebanon Tuesday on the Senate floor. "We have some kids who need some help also. I think the proponents need to look at the bill again."
Russell charged the legislation is driven by lobbyists in St. Louis who don't want to have to raise property taxes to make up for lost state funding.
Though all sides have essentially agreed that it takes more money to educate at-risk students, both House and Russell argued that the school aid formula already accounts for poverty, and the money should be further spread out to other needs across the state as well.
While House agreed that Kansas City and St. Louis schools need "a soft landing" coming off desegregation, he proposes a five-year phase-out.
Under Caskey's proposal, on the other hand, extra funding for the high-poverty school districts would continue indefinitely.
Under House's approach, Columbia could get nearly $4 million more from the state at the conclusion of the five-year phase out.
For Columbia School District, an extra $4 million a year of state aid formula could nearly eliminate the district's yearly budget shortfall.
"We are interested in Columbia schools being treated equitably," said Columbia School Board President Harris Cooper. "We'll want to see what the options are." Cooper said if given money beyond their current formula allocations, the district could speed up capital improvements. "The most appealing money is that with no strings attached."
Like Caskey, mid-Missouri Senator Joe Maxwell, D-Mexico, said the savings should be earmarked for districts with more poverty, even though his district would get far less money per pupil than Kansas City and St. Louis. However, he would like to see Caskey's bill earmark some of the desegregation savings to capital projects in districts like Columbia, which is in need of more buildings to accommodate over-crowding.
Columbia Sen. Ken Jacob said even though Columbia schools may get more money from House's plan, he does not want to see the efforts to help at-risk students in Kansas City and St. Louis collapse.
Though both bills will mean more money for education, they vary on the money that would be available for special projects. House's bill would use half of the savings to increase funding for transportation, special and vocational education, alternative schools, A-plus schools and capital projects. Both bills provide scholarships for at-risk students and also money for charter schools.
But if House has his way, legislators may find themselves in the precarious position of adding money to an already fully funded school formula -- essentially funding the formula over 100 percent.
In a battle of wills, the polar opposite approaches taken by Sens. Caskey and House could mean reconfiguring the school aid formula in one way or another to accommodate the desegregation savings.
The legislature agreed in 1993 to fund a school aid formula that assesses the state's responsibilities on property values ratios, state taxes received and school attendance. The formula's scale is intended to assure that districts don't spend less on student's in poorer areas than students in affluent areas. In Missouri, the poorest neighborhoods are generally in the inner cities and southern rural areas of the state.
"I can't believe the legislature would ever vote to overfund the formula," said Sen. Joe Maxwell, D-Mexico, who sits on the Senate appropriations committee. "People who believe they will get extra funding are mistaken."
Maxwell said he believes if the legislature were to stick desegregation savings into the schools funding formula, the General Assembly would not stretch the formula to be funded over 100 percent. Instead, the legislature would simply "drain the money out the bottom," he said. That is, the savings would not mean extra money for education.
MSTA director Aull agrees with Maxwell that the legislature will probably not choose to give the additional money to the formula. Instead, it would essentially go to other programs.
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