Legislators need to keep education as top priority

Wednesday, May 8, 2002

One of several budget fights was apparently settled early this week, with the General Assembly advancing a bill that retools the state formula used to fund public schools.

Whether the issue was settled in a way that will be fair to all school districts or will eventually have negative effects for students remains to be seen. And the House and Senate must still agree on whether school districts will receive a $100 million (the Senate's version) or $175 million (the House version) increase.

Money is not a cure-all for schools, whether they be elementary, high school or post-secondary institutions. But the school funding bill passed by the Senate Monday also allows something of a white lie, saying the state's basic formula will be fully funded.

Ensuring the formula is fully funded is important to several special interest groups, groups that spend money on legislators and hold sway over thousands of potential votes.

But how do we define full funding? Based on the formula in use for this fiscal year, the state's schools would be due at least another $250 million according to education officials. That's a fair amount more than either body in Jefferson City was even considering.

Legislators refigured the amount due by averaging two years worth of property valuations, one of the items including enrollment and local property tax levy used in figuring how much districts are due from the state.

Sen. John Russell, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has also hinted that the fight over school funding may not be over. Unless the state receives some sort of windfall, said Russell, it still will be short of money to pay for its obligations. That could mean another round of deciding where, and how much, to cut from state departments.

This is a very tough year for all our elected representatives, with many hard decisisions on the local, county and state levels about how to spend the money that is available.

As much as possible, the state must keep promises it has made to the next generation of Missourians, especially when considering education and testing it has said will be used to hold school districts accountable.