JEFFERSON CITY - The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the state's current school funding program is constitutional.
At the beginning of the case in 2004, the lawsuit involved more than 200 school districts from across the state. Districts involved in the case claimed the state failed to spend enough on education and had not allocated funds equitably among the state's more than 500 school districts.
At issue in the case was the state's local property tax system that allows richer districts to generate a higher level of per-student funding for schools than poorer districts. Since the lawsuit was filed, the legislature passed a revised the school funding formula designed to address the local-funding disparities among school districts.
Jefferson City attorney Alex Bartlett, who represented the school districts, said he was disappointed with the court's decision.
"We'll consider a motion for re-hearing. Whether we do that or not I'm not prepared to say," Bartlett said. "I think the ball is now in the legislative arena to look at what they adopted a few years ago and see if they can make some corrections in the process. The disparities are still there."
A major figure in the case has been Gene Oakley who along with Bartlett helped lead an earlier, successful lawsuit against the state's school funding system in the early 1990s.
Oakley, a state representative and a former local district superintendent, is now the presiding commissioner of Carter County. Like Bartlett, he expressed disappointment in the state high court decision.
"Larger school districts have a large enough tax base to put a tremendous amount of money behind each student. The poor districts do not have that. All this does is exacerbate the problem," Oakley said.
The Senate's current president pro tem -- Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph -- sponsored the current funding formula. He said said the court's decision came as no surprise. He said the funding formula is not based on taxing capacity or tax rates of local school districts, but rather "on what it actually costs to educate a child."
To those who oppose the current funding formula, Shields said, "It's working. It takes seven years to phase in and at that time we'll have increased spending for K-12 education by a billion dollars a year. This is a significant increase in school funding."
The court's decision was nearly unanimous. Of the seven judges, five joined fully in the decision, one partially agreed and one did not participate in the decision.
"Education is not a fundamental right under the United States Constitution's equal protection provision," the court's opinion stated in rejecting the equity challenge by the school districts.
The court further held that the state's constitution "does not contain a mandate for equitable per-pupil expenditures among districts."
The decision noted that an earlier constitutional requirement for equitable distribution of funds among school districts had been removed in 1875.