«RM75»«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL093.PRB - This Loss of an Education Leader
This summer, Missouri lost one of its most effective education leaders, Alex Bartlett.
He did not hold public office. Never did, as best I know. In fact, he was not even a government staffer.
Instead, he was a mild-mannered, quiet-spoken Jefferson City attorney.
In all of the times I met him, I cannot remember him without a smile on his face -- and always eager to help reporters better understand the complexities of school funding.
He was so soft-spoken that it's hard to realize just what a huge impact he had on funding for Missouri schools.
His legal efforts laid the groundwork for some of biggest state budget increases for education in years.
And its because of Bartlett's efforts that the state moved closer to the goal of providing an equitable level of funding and educational services -- regardless of whether a child lives in a rich or a poor district.
The bills were sponsored by others, former senators Harold Caskey and later Charlie Shields. But without Bartlett's efforts, I don't think those bills would have had any chance.
Bartlett did it with lawsuits that he filed on behalf of school district coalitions.
Bartlett's lawsuits raised two challenges. First, was the argument that the legislature did not provide sufficient funds to meet a constitutional requirement for the state to maintain the school system with an adequate level of funding.
The other part of his challenge involved equity. There was and remains no substantive disagreement that there are vastly different levels of per-student spending among the state's school districts.
In January 1993, Bartlett won a decisive victory from Cole County Circuit Court Judge Byron Kinder. It sent a shock wave through state government and in the administration of Gov. Mel Carnahan who had just taken office.
Carnahan had campaigned on a call for expanded funding for public schools. He promised any tax increase would be submitted to the voters.
But in his first month in office, he faced the threat that if something was not done quickly, the courts might take over school funding.
In response, Carnahan and the Democratic-controlled legislature pushed through one of the biggest tax increases in the state's history and one of the biggest boosts in school funding in decades. The bill, sponsored by Caskey, raised taxes by more than $300 million per year for education and rewrote the formula by which state money is allocated among schools.
But it did not work. As the years passed, funding disparities among school districts continued. The kids who won were those who lived in districts of high property values with voters earning incomes high enough to be willing to adopt hefty property tax rates for their schools.
The losers were children in poorer school districts.
So, nearly a decade later, Bartlett went back to court with another coalition of school districts challenging the school's funding formula.
This time, the legislature did not wait on the courts. Predicting a likely court decision against the state, Shields, then the Senate's GOP leader, pushed through a new funding formula for public schools that was designed to gradually reduce the funding inequities.
Rather than cutting funding for richer schools to quickly get extra money for the poorer districts, Shields' bill provided that poorer districts would get a bigger share of additional funding increases in future years. And the new law set a minimum funding increase for each year that the legislature was expected kick in.
It might have worked, had it not been for the economic downturn that made it financially impossible to meet those funding-increase requirements.
Ironically, Bartlett lost the case that prompted Shields' bill. In a decision upheld by the state Supreme Court, Cole County Circuit Judge Rich Callahan, now the U.S. Attorney in St. Louis, ruled against Bartlett's lawsuit.
Callahan dismissed arguments that the state had an obligation to provide equity in funding among school districts. And he rejected that there was a funding adequacy requirement that was higher than what the state already was providing.
With the Supreme Court's affirmation of that decision, Bartlett's legal battles over education funding had come to an end.
Occasionally, I'd ask if he was thinking about another challenge, but I sensed Bartlett knew he could not win his fight in court. The sparkle in his eye was still there. He clearly did not agree that treating children unequally was legal. But he no longer had a case.
Yet, that 2005 law remains on the books. So whenever the legislature can afford large budget increases for public schools, the kids in those poorer districts eventually will get the benefits of Alex Bartlett's vision.
Bartlett passed July 30 at the age of 75.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]