Has DESE Acted Illegally by Making Their Own Funding Formula?

The Post-Dispatch reports today on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s administrative school funding formula “fix.” The PD reports:

In the past few weeks, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has rolled out an approach for avoiding what soon could be a $700 million shortfall in the state’s school funding formula.

Without a fix, that shortfall would have triggered a breakdown in the formula by which some districts could have lost upwards of 20 percent of state aid, even as other school districts experienced a windfall of new money.

Under the latest plan, the state would reduce the total price tag for funding Missouri’s schools to something closer to what the state can afford.

Doing so allows most districts to receive an amount of state aid closer to what they are currently receiving. Even so, most districts will lose at least a little. And in the case of St. Louis Public Schools, that shortfall is about $3 million.

Here’s what happened. When the legislature re-wrote the formula in 2005, it failed to plan for budget shortfalls. The formula assumes “full” funding every year – and when “full” funding isn’t reached because of a budget crisis, there’s no clear way for DESE to “distribute” the losses. 

I know the folks at DESE are doing the best they can. They’re in a difficult situation. I don’t know if the administrative funding formula they’ve adopted is the best on substantive policy. I am confident they’re doing their best to be fair to all districts. 

But regardless of whether the policy is right on substance, there’s a democratic principle here that cannot be ignored. Even if everyone in the state agrees that the funding formula statutes need to be fixed, they can only be fixed in a way that abides by the constitution.

I believe there are two questions in this case. First, does DESE’s administrative formula re-write conflict with existing statutes? If yes, then DESE’s action is clearly illegal. Second, are there any statutes by which DESE is given the authority to re-write the formula based on an unforeseen circumstance? If no, DESE’s action is clearly illegal.

I do not know the answers to these questions and I wish DESE wasn’t in this situation, but we can’t allow expedience to justify ignoring the proper roles of the legislature versus administrative agencies.