A new budget proposal from Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) would fully fund Missouri’s foundation formula for K-12 education for the first time in years. As I have noted in the past, there were some obvious reasons for why the formula has been underfunded. The formula had features that let it grow rapidly. When this happened, the state simply could not keep up with the obligations. Last year, legislators reinstituted a five percent cap on growth in the formula. That change makes fully funding the formula an actual possibility—one that could become reality as soon as next year.

The fact that Missouri has not fully funded the formula has been a rallying cry for more education spending. Indeed, educators across the state have claimed that we are “underfunding public education.” This new budget proposal has me wondering what will happen to those calls for increased spending when the state finally does fully fund the formula. Will they die down, or will they persist? To answer this question, it is important to define “underfunding” public education. Below, I explain three ways to think about education spending.

Constitutional Obligations

State constitutions vary in what they require in terms of education spending. Some state constitutions say very little. Others call education a “paramount duty” of the state. In Missouri, the constitution explicitly requires the state to spend 25 percent of state revenue on public education, which the state regularly does. The Missouri Supreme Court has upheld the funding system as recently as 2009.

Formula Obligations

The legislature is responsible for creating a formula to fund public schools. Missouri uses a foundation formula, which calculates exactly how much the state should spend on each student in the state. The Show-Me Institute recently released an updated version of my paper, “A Primer on Missouri’s Foundation Formula for K-12 Public Education,” which explains exactly how schools are funded by the state.

In creating the formula, the state creates what may be seen as another form of obligation—a stated obligation of adequacy. This obligation may be separate from a constitutional requirement, but it nevertheless creates an expectation among public school officials. They expect lawmakers to fully fund the formula they created. As we have seen failure to do so creates a useful talking point for advocates of higher education spending—we are underfunding the formula.

Now, it seems that argument may disappear.

Moral Obligations

What happens when Missouri fulfills its constitutional and formula obligations to fully fund public education? This will take some of the wind out of the sails of advocates for higher education spending, but it certainly will not end calls to increase funding. The truth is that individuals have their own views on education. These views may or may not be informed by research, but ultimately they flow from our own personal values, beliefs, and morals. I call this the moral obligation to fund schools. The level of this obligation is not universal; rather, it varies from individual to individual.

I applaud the legislature’s effort to fully satisfy both constitutional and formula obligations in funding Missouri’s schools. Nevertheless, we should anticipate continued calls for increased spending. Those calls, however, will be easier for lawmakers to address when they can point to a fully funded formula. 

James V. Shuls, Ph.D.

About the Author

James Shuls
James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.