Beyond equality and adequacy: equal protection, tax assessments, and the Missouri public school funding dilemma.

AuthorRowe, Ronald K., II

Committee for Educational Equality v. State of Missouri, 294 S.W.3d 477 (Mo. 2009) (en banc).


    The Missouri Constitution guarantees a free public education for all school-age children until the age of twenty-one for the purpose of preserving the rights and liberties of the people. In 2005, the Missouri General Assembly sought to make this constitutional guarantee a reality by enacting Senate Bill 287 (SB287), which contained a new formula to be used for the distribution of state funds to public schools. The legislature intended for this new formula to result in a fairer administration of public education. However, simply having the intention of achieving a more just system of school funding does not guarantee that the legislature achieved its purpose with its recent action or that the legislation is consistent with the Missouri Constitution as a whole. In the 2009 case of Committee for Educational Equality v. State of Missouri, a group of students, taxpayers, and school districts challenged SB287, arguing that the funding formula violated numerous provisions of the Missouri Constitution and thus should be struck down as invalid. (1) The Supreme Court of Missouri rejected this challenge and upheld SB287 in its entirety. (2)

    This Note focuses on the 2009 challenge to the SB287 formula and specifically the arguments that should have been accepted by the Supreme Court of Missouri. Central to the rejected challenges were two arguments not sufficiently considered by the court in its opinion: (1) the new school funding formula violates equal protection provisions of the Missouri Constitution because it does not adequately provide equal treatment under the law with respect to the fundamental right of education, and (2) the tax assessment procedures prescribed by the new formula and implemented by the State Tax Commission do not comply with the Missouri Constitution and related statutory requirements. Given its failure to adequately address these constitutional challenges to the new public school funding formula, the Supreme Court of Missouri erred in upholding SB287.


    In 2004, the Committee for Education Equality (CEE) and other plaintiffs (3) brought suit to challenge Missouri's school funding formula as it existed at that time. (4) The plaintiffs alleged that Missouri's school funding formula resulted in "inadequate and inequitable" funding to public schools and maintained that such deficiencies violated article IX, section 1(a) of the Missouri Constitution. (5) Before the plaintiffs' case reached trial, the state legislature amended the school funding formula by enacting SB287 in 2005. (6) Attempting to address potential deficiencies of inadequate and inequitable school funding, the new state formula adopted in SB287 provided state aid to Missouri public schools under the following calculation:

    [weighted daily attendance average] (7) x [[state adequacy target] (8) x [[dollar value modifier] (9) = [subtotal of dollars needed] - [local effort] (10) = [state funding]. (11)

    The amended formula reflected the view that school districts with greater contributions from local funding "require[d] less state financial assistance to meet the costs of providing a free public education." (12) The SB287 formula "was designed to be phased in over seven years." (13) In the present case, the plaintiffs argued that both the old and new school funding formulas applied assessed valuation calculations that violate the Missouri Constitution because they fail to fund the public school system adequately. (14)

    At trial, the "[p]laintiffs presented evidence of alleged inadequacy by focusing on [specific districts] whose funding under [the SB287] formula failed to meet the 'state adequacy target'" requirement. (15) The plaintiffs "highlighted the spending disparities" as well as the differences among the tax bases of Missouri's school districts. (16) Specifically, the plaintiffs contended that the legislature's reliance on 2004 tax assessment data was irrational and unlawfully grounded in failures by the State Tax Commission to administer its statutory oversight and equalization responsibilities. (17) The plaintiffs argued that Missouri assessments "were not on pace with market values" and that freezing the assessments at 2004 levels only compounded this problem. (18) Citing a study critical of the school funding formula, (19) the plaintiffs argued that the SB287 formula was improperly based on assessment calculations that varied widely across the state and were unacceptably low in many cases because they did not reflect accurate market values. (20) An expert for the plaintiffs testified that Missouri's school funding system was "one of the most disparate" in America because the "funding formula placed a [significant] burden on local school districts by increasing their responsibility [to fund] public schools." (21) Finally, while the plaintiffs acknowledged that the SB287 formula would contribute more than $2 million in public funds statewide, they argued that this number was far below the $904.8 million required to fund the schools adequately. (22)

    The State (23) defended the SB287 formula by asserting that the funding plan would provide a total of $800 million once fully implemented. (24) The State urged the court to note that the long-term goal of the new school funding formula was to move from a tax-based system to a need-based one. (25) Finally, the State argued that SB287 was constitutional because it explicitly complied with the requirements outlined in article IX, section 3(b) of the Missouri Constitution. (26) Agreeing with the State's arguments, the trial court ruled that Missouri law did not require funding public education beyond twenty-five percent of state revenue. (27) The trial court rejected CEE's claims that SB287 violated the Hancock Amendment (28) and that the amendment pro vided the remedy sought by the plaintiffs. (29) Finally, the court dismissed CEE's claims regarding assessment calculation on standing and procedural grounds and rejected the argument that the legislature wrongly relied on the State Tax Commissioner's 2004 data. (30)

    In appealing the trial court's decision, the plaintiffs raised four constitutional challenges to SB287's funding formula: "(1) the formula 'inadequately' funds schools in violation of article IX ...; (2) the formula violates equal protection; (3) the formula violates Missouri's Hancock Amendment; and (4) the legislature violated article X of the Missouri Constitution and certain statutes by incorporating inaccurate assessment figures into the formula." (31) on September 1, 2009, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that each of the plaintiffs' claims were without merit; in doing so, the court upheld the constitutionality of the SB287 formula for school funding. (32)


    1. Rodriguez--A Federal Constitutional Right to Public Education?

      In 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. (33) In Rodriguez, students from school districts with low expenditures per pupil challenged the state's school funding scheme by alleging that funding public schools based on property tax collections violated federal equal protection requirements. (34) Specifically, districts with low property values generated vastly different levels of revenue for funding public schools than did those in districts with high property values. (35) Writing for the Court, Justice Powell argued that unless there is an absolute deprivation of state services, a lack of equality in state funding of public schools does not violate equal protection guarantees. (36) The Court found that the Texas school funding scheme neither depended upon a suspect class based on wealth (37) nor violated a fundamental right to education generally. (38) The key fundamental right inquiry was whether the Federal Constitution "explicitly or implicitly guaranteed" an education to all, and the majority held that the Constitution contained no such right. (39)

      Justice White's dissenting opinion highlighted that the school funding scheme was more than just unwise, it was also irrational because it guaranteed that school funding in low-income districts could never increase. (40) This fact ensured that some children would not enjoy equal protection under the law, and thus the Texas scheme was unconstitutional, even under rational basis review. (41) Justice Marshall's dissent went a step further by claiming that the interests of low-wealth property districts and education generally were significant enough to warrant a heightened level of scrutiny in judicial review. (42) Nevertheless, a federal fundamental right to education was denied. (43) As a result of Rodriguez, the movement to challenge public school financing schemes shifted to arguments based on state constitutions. (44)

    2. State Constitutional Challenges to Public Education Funding

      After the Rodriguez Court denied a federal fundamental right to education, numerous state cases followed with attempts to establish education as a fundamental right under state constitutions or education statutes. (45) Lacking a federal constitutional right to education, proponents of public school finance reform were forced to bring their challenges exclusively at the state level and to argue that the state constitution provided such a right. (46)

      Predating Rodriguez, the case of Serrano v. Priest I (47) challenged the California system of public school funding on federal equal protection grounds. (48) In Serrano I, the Supreme Court of California held that the California scheme of public education funding violated federal equal protection guarantees because the funding system was based on local property tax revenue, which made access and quality of education a wealth-based issue. (49) Its holding invalidated by Rodriguez, Serrano I inspired a second case that instead challenged the public...

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