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“Your tax policy oughtta look like it was done on purpose,” said Otto Fajen of the MNEA. Speaking at the State of the State Budget Summit last week, he applied that bit of wisdom to school funding in Missouri and found our formula wanting.

One statistic illustrates the problem: Missouri is near the top in a category you don’t want to win. We rank fourth in the nation as far as high local spending on schools. In other words, if you got the hefty tax base in your community, then you get good schools. Otherwise, fuhgeddaboudit. The spread in what local districts spend is twenty to one. In other words, the Clayton school district in St. Louis County spends twenty times as much in local funding as the poorest districts in the state. Clayton residents feel they have to spend that kind of money to get the education they want for their students, and the state sure isn’t going to provide it.

I mean. Is such inequity the sort of tax policy a state would design on purpose?

We also have the dubious distinction of bucking a national trend. As a result of litigation in other states, the state share of funding for schools has been rising in many places.

There is hope, though, that Missouri will shift direction, because we too have litigation wending its way through our courts: litigation filed on January 6, 2004 asserting that our school funding has been inadequate and inequitable. It’s headed for the Supreme Court, and a decision should be handed down by June 30 of next year.

The Budget Summit speakers on Medicaid and transportation made the case that federal funds spent on their area of expertise would benefit the entire state economy. Likewise with Fajen.

He argues that it makes no sense to ratchet back school spending. If our state can’t provide a quality work force, then we don’t attract businesses. A qualified pool of employees is much more important to companies looking to relocate or deciding whether to stay than tax credits are. But if funding has already been inadequate, think what the withering state revenue will do to public education, which always takes a hit in hard times. On the other hand, if federal dollars come to our educational system, schools can help create an environment where businesses thrive. What’s more, those federal dollars will get spent at Shop ‘n Save, Target, and Home Depot by the thousands of school district employees.

Fajen warned that Amendment A and the repeal of loss limits for casinos was not designed to have much financial impact on schools in fiscal year 2009. Missouri’s schools need federal help this year–and presumably will get some in the form of capital improvements, according to the plan Obama has outlined.

They also need to win that litigation before the Supreme Court.