Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Committee for Educational Equality v. State of Missouri

Opinion handed down September 1, 2009 [FN 1]
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Supreme Court of Missouri held that Missouri’s public education funding formula does not violate the Missouri Constitution, nor was it an irrational or arbitrary act by the legislature to rely on the Missouri State Tax Commission’s 2004 assessment in crafting the funding formula.

I. Background

Plaintiffs alleged that Missouri’s school funding formula is unconstitutional in that it is disparate and inadequate in its support of public education. [FN 2] They contend that the formula is flawed because it incorrectly calculates tax assessment data, which then renders incorrect “local effort” contributions and directly affects the adequacy and equity of Missouri public education funding. [FN 3] Defendants argued that the funding produced under the formula is adequate because it complies with the funding mandate outlined in article IX, section 3(b) of the Missouri Constitution, which requires the State to contribute no less than twenty-five percent of the State’s revenue to fund public education. [FN 4] The trial court agreed with the Defendants that the funding formula is in compliance with the mandate set forth in the Missouri Constitution and dismissed the assessment calculation challenges on standing and jurisdictional grounds. [FN 5] The trial court also rejected the Plaintiff’s claim that the legislature wrongly relied on the State Tax Commission’s 2004 assessment data. [FN 6]

Plaintiffs raised four categories of challenges to Missouri’s funding formula on appeal: (1) the formula inadequately funds schools in violation of article IX of the Missouri Constitution; (2) the formula violates equal protection; (3) the formula violates Missouri’s Hancock Amendment; and (4) the legislature violates article X of the Missouri Constitution and certain statutes by incorporating inaccurate assessment figures into the formula. [FN 7]

II. Procedural Issues

The court first addressed the standing of three different groups of plaintiffs: school district organizations, taxpayers, and students. [FN 8] “Standing requires that a party seeking relief has some legally protectable interest in the litigation so as to be affected directly and adversely by its outcome.” [FN 9]

A. School District Organizations

The court found that the school districts had standing to assert the alleged violation of article IX, section 1(a) because under their interpretation they would be entitled to more funds. [FN10] Also, the school districts had standing to challenge the State’s reliance on certain tax assessments because they allege this impacts their duty to provide free public education under article IX, section 1(a). [FN11] The court also found that the school districts did not have standing to assert equal protection violations or violations of the Hancock Amendment because they are not persons within the protection of the due process and equal protection clauses, and the Hancock Amendment by its terms does not grant standing to school districts or their representative organizations. [FN 12]

B. Taxpayers

The court found that plaintiff taxpayers did have standing to raise assessment challenges to the extent that they allege the State is spending tax revenue improperly under articles IX and X of the Missouri Constitution. [FN 13] However, the court also found that the taxpayers did not have standing to bring equal protection claims on behalf of public school students generally. [FN 14]

C. Students

The court found that the students had standing because their interests in public education are directly affected, and their claims were not moot because some of them remain in public school. With respect to those who are not in school, their claims were not moot because they presented claims capable of repetition that may otherwise evade review. [FN 15]

Because at least one plaintiff had standing to raise each claim, the court considered each of the challenges. [FN 16]

D. Defendant-Intervenors

The trial court allowed permissive intervention to three taxpayers seeking to join the State’s defense of the school district funding formula. [FN 17] The court reviews permissive intervention for an abuse of discretion. [FN 18] Under Missouri Supreme Court Rule 52.12(b), permissive intervention is provided in three circumstances: (1) when allowed by statute; (2) when an applicant’s claim or defense and the main action have a question of law or fact in common; or (3) when the State is seeking intervention in a case raising constitutional or statutory challenges. [FN 19] The court found that none of the three circumstances was applicable in the present case, and the trial court erred in allowing the permissive intervention. [FN 20] However, intervention error does not merit reversal unless the plaintiffs were harmed. [FN 21] The court found that the Plaintiffs did not demonstrate a specific harm or specify litigation costs caused by the improper intervention, and, therefore, the intervention does not require reversal. [FN 22]

III. School Funding Formula Does Not Violate Article IX

The court reviewed the trial court’s interpretation of the Missouri Constitution de novo. [FN 23]

Article IX, section 3(b) of the Missouri Constitution provides,

In event the public school fund provided and set apart by law for the support of free public schools, [sic] shall be insufficient to sustain free schools at least eight months in every year in each school district of the state, the general assembly may provide for such deficiency; but in no case shall there be set apart less than [25] percent of the state revenue, exclusive of interest and sinking fund, to be applied annually to the support of the free public schools. [FN 24]

Plaintiffs did not argue that the funding formula fails under section 3(b) of article IX but argued that it fails section 1(a). Section 1(a) states,

A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the general assembly shall establish and maintain free public schools for the gratuitous instruction of all persons in this state within ages not in excess of [21] years as prescribed by law. [FN 25]

Plaintiffs argued that section 1(a) dictates a separate funding requirement from 3(b), which requires the legislature to provide “adequate” education funding in excess of the twenty-five percent funding requirement in section 3(b). [FN 26]

The court found that section 1(a) is purely aspirational and as such does not constitute a separate funding requirement beyond section 3(b). [FN 27] Since the State had met the twenty-five percent funding requirement under section 3(b), the Plaintiffs’ contention that the funding formula is unconstitutional because it fails section 1(a) was without merit. [FN 28]

IV. School Funding Formula Does Not Violate Equal Protection

Plaintiffs contended that Missouri’s funding formula violates article I, section 2 of the Missouri Constitution, which guarantees equal rights and opportunities under the law. [FN 29] The Missouri Constitution provides that the law cannot treat similarly situated persons differently without adequate justification. [FN 30] If the law impacts a fundamental right, the court will use strict scrutiny review, but where a fundamental right is not impacted, the court will use rational-basis review. [FN 31] Education is not a fundamental right under the United States Constitution’s equal protection provisions. [FN 32] The court found that education is not a fundamental right under the Missouri Constitution. Because the Missouri Constitution contemplates disparate funding schemes for public schools throughout the State and because there is no free-standing adequacy requirement or an equalizing mandate, the court found that the Plaintiffs failed to show that the funding formula impacts a fundamental right. [FN 33]

Because education is not a fundamental right under the Missouri Constitution, the court reviewed the funding formula under rational-basis review, under which it will uphold the law if it is justified by any set of facts. [FN 34] The court found that funding schools in a way that combines State and local funds with State funds going disproportionately to schools with fewer local funds cannot be said to be irrational as part of the legislature’s legitimate attempt to fund public educations pursuant to article IX, section 1(a) of the Missouri Constitution. [FN 35]

IV. School Funding Formula Does Not Violate the Hancock Amendment

The Plaintiffs alleged that the funding formula violates section 16 of the Hancock Amendment by requiring new programs without funding them and violates section 21 by reducing the state-financed portion of certain educational programs. [FN 36] Section 23 of the Hancock Amendment details the available remedies to taxpayers and only allows for declaratory relief. [FN 37] The court had previously found that section 23 cannot be read as a waiver of sovereign immunity for money judgments against the state but rather must be read to grant a judgment relieving a local government of the duty to perform an inadequately funded and required service or activity. [FN 38] In this case, the Plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment to require the State to increase school funding, a remedy the court found to be unavailable under the Hancock Amendment. [FN 39] Because the Plaintiffs disaffirmed that they desired to be released from any mandate, the court found that their Hancock Amendment challenge failed. [FN 40]

V. School Funding Formula Does Not Violate Article X or Other Statutes

Plaintiffs argued that the funding formula violates the Missouri Constitution article X, sections 3, 4, and 14 and that it violates several Missouri statutes. [FN 41] The court said that the constitutional and statutory provisions cited by the Plaintiffs speak to what the State Tax Commission must do and outline procedures for the mandates of school funding. [FN 42] The Plaintiffs' claim, however, was not that the Commission acted improperly (the Commission is not a party to this case) but that the legislature acted improperly in relying on the Commission’s reports in calculating the funding formula. [FN 43] The concurring and dissenting opinion issued by Judge Wolff in this case criticized the equality of the Missouri tax assessment scheme, and it highlighted that unconstitutionally disparate taxation is disallowed pursuant to the Supreme Court of Missouri’s opinion in Missouri ex rel. School District of City of Independence v. Jones. [FN 44] However, the court found that the issue of Missouri’s assessment scheme and its relationship to the funding of public education was not a question before the court in this case, and, therefore, the court refused to address it. [FN 45]

The court found that the constitutional provisions invoked by the Plaintiffs do not restrict the legislature’s discretion in shaping the public school formula and, in the absence of a constitutional bar, the legislature has plenary power to craft the funding formula. [FN 46] Therefore, the Plaintiff’s only remaining argument was that the legislature acted irrationally or arbitrarily in its reliance on the Commission’s 2004 assessment data. [FN 47]

The Plaintiffs relied on a Public Policy Research Center Report (PPRC) conducted by the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 2006, which concluded that the funding formula under review was based on assessment calculations that varied widely throughout the state and were unacceptably low because they did not reflect market values to argue that the legislature’s reliance on the Commissions 2004 assessment was irrational. [FN 48] The court rejected this assertion for multiple reasons. [FN 49] First, the court said the report was created after the funding formula, so the legislature did not have access to the report when creating the formula. [FN 50] Second, the court said that even if the 2004 Commission data is imperfect, it cannot be said that reliance on it by the legislature was irrational. [FN 51] The court found that the legislature incorporated the information it had at the time, and the fact that there is perhaps a better or more proper assessment practice available after the fact was not determinative under the great discretion granted to the legislature under rational-basis review. [FN 52]

The court found that the legislature’s reliance on the 2004 Commission data was permissible because it was a rational attempt toward the legitimate end of funding Missouri’s public schools. [FN 53] The court said its role is not to assess the wisdom of the legislature’s judgments, which would violate the separation of powers. [FN 54] Likewise, the court found that the legislature’s decisions to phase in the new formula over seven years and to freeze the 2004 data was not irrational because it could serve to promote continuity between funding systems, and the freezing of the assessment data is consistent with the legislature’s revisiting of public education funding every ten years. [FN 55]

Therefore, the court found no error in the trial court’s findings that upheld the funding formula for Missouri public schools. [FN 56]

VI. Commentary

The Plaintiffs’ argument in this case was essentially a policy argument against the way the Missouri legislature has decided to fund Missouri public education. The Missouri Constitution has little to say, other than the twenty-five percent minimum of State revenues that must be allocated to public education, which can be interpreted as an affirmative requirement upon the legislature. The court does not say that the Plaintiffs’ policy reasons to question the legislature’s judgment are invalid. In fact, the court explicitly puts aside that question because it finds its role is not to second guess the legislature in this area but to ensure that the legislature has met its affirmative obligations under the Missouri Constitution and that it has not impermissibly discriminated in any way. The concurring judge in this case was willing to address questions that the majority was not because he felt it justifiable to consider whether the Missouri tax assessment scheme was itself valid. The majority felt it improper to consider this issue because the Missouri Tax Commission was not a party to the case. The question here was not whether the tax assessment was itself valid but whether the legislature committed a constitutionally deficient error in its reliance on the 2004 Missouri tax assessment. Because education is not a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution or the Missouri Constitution, the court conducted a rational-basis review and concluded that the legislature had acted rationally. If the Plaintiffs proceed further, they have two clear alternatives available to them: first, they may be able to attack the Missouri tax assessment scheme itself by bringing an action against the Missouri Tax Commission; and second, they could bring their policy arguments to the legislature itself, which is, arguably, the more proper forum in which to address these issues.

- Bradley S. Dixon

[FN 1] 2009 WL 2762464 (Mo. 2009) (en banc).
[FN 2] Id. at *1. The current formula being challenged is located at Mo. Rev. Stat. § 163 (Supp 2008). The simplified formula is [weighted average daily attendance] x [state adequacy target] x [dollar value modifier] = subtotal of dollars needed – [local effort] = state funding. Id.
[FN 3] Id.
[FN 4] Id. at *3.
[FN 5] Id.
[FN 6] Id.
[FN 7] Id.
[FN 8] Id.
[FN 9] Id. (citing Mo. State Med. Ass’n v. State, 256 S.W.3d 85, 87 (Mo. 2008) (en banc).
[FN 10] Id. at *4
[FN 11] Id.
[FN 12] Id.
[FN 13] Id. at *5. See Ste. Genevieve Sch. Dist. R-II v. Bd. of Alderman, 66 S.W. 3d 6, 11 (Mo. 2002) (en banc) (finding that a taxpayer had standing to seek a declaratory judgment that the city was acting beyond its authority where a redevelopment project would cost the school district and the city future tax revenue).
[FN 14] Id. See Comm. for Educ. Equal. v. State, 878 S.W.2d 446, 450 (Mo. 1994) (en banc) (claims of equal protection rights generally may not be raised by third parties).
[FN 15] Id.
[FN 16] Id.
[FN 17] Id.
[FN 18] Id. at *6.
[FN 19] Id.
[FN 20] Id.
[FN 21] Id. (citing St. Louis County v. Vill. of Peerless Park, 726 S.W.2d 405, 410 (Mo. App. E.D. 1987).
[FN 22] Id.
[FN 23] Id. at *7.
[FN 24] Id.
[FN 25] Id.
[FN 26] Id.
[FN 27] Id. at *8.
[FN 28] Id.
[FN 29] Id.
[FN 30] Id.
[FN 31] Id.
[FN 32] Id. at *9. See San Antonio Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 93 (1973) (Marshall, J., dissenting).
[FN 33] Id.
[FN 34] Id.
[FN 35] Id. at *10.
[FN 36] Id. See Mo. Const. art. X, §§ 16-24.
[FN 37] Id. See Taylor v. State, 247 S.W.3d 546, 548 (Mo. banc 2008).
[FN 38] Id. See Fort Zumwalt Sch. Dist. v. State, 896 S.W.2d 918, 923 (Mo. banc 1995).
[FN 39] Id.
[FN 40] Id. at *11.
[FN 41] Id.
[FN 42] Id.
[FN 43] Id.
[FN 44] Id. (citing 653 S.W.2d 178 (Mo. 1983) (en banc)).
[FN 45] Id. at *12
[FN 46] Id.
[FN 47] Id.
[FN 48] Id. at *2, *12.
[FN 49] Id. at *12.
[FN 50] Id.
[FN 51] Id.
[FN 52] Id.
[FN 53] Id. at *14
[FN 54] Id.
[FN 55] Id.
[FN 56] Id.