Missouri Court Says Education Not a Fundamental Right

Last Updated: September 29, 2009

This article appeared in the September 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
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This month, the Missouri Supreme Court ended a four-year-long school finance lawsuit, Committee for Educational Equity (CEE) v. State, by ruling that education is not a fundamental right for students in the state and that students across the state are not entitled to equal funding. In the decision, the state was found to be meeting its responsibility because it spent at least 25% of state revenues on education, a provision of the state’s constitution.
The adequacy case was brought by a coalition of approximately 250 districts, almost half of the Missouri’s 523 districts. Many of the participating districts are rural, and they include districts in the Ozarks region, an area of extreme poverty. (See Missouri’s Ozarks schools Suffer Funding Disparitiesin the October 2008 RPM) CEE was formed in the late 1980s by rural districts that built an alliance with poor urban school districts. That group won a funding lawsuit in 1993.
The Rural Trust participated in filing a friend of the court brief in the case along with Missouri School Boards Association, Education Justice at the Education Law Center, and the National School Board Association. That brief argued that the 25% spending requirement was not the only educational provision the state was required to follow and cited a phrase in the Missouri constitution that the education system provide for the “general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence.” The high court, however, refused to find any state responsibility in that phrase.
The decision upheld a 2007 Missouri Circuit Court ruling that spending beyond the 25% threshold is not necessary.
Plaintiffs had withstood a motion for dismissal based on nonjusticiability — the idea that school funding is not a proper issue for the court to determine. A group of mostly suburban districts had also intervened in the lower court action, claiming that property tax assessments in rural districts were too low. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that intervention was an error, but not one that tainted the outcome and that the tax assessments issue could be raised in another action.
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Read more from the September 2009 Rural Policy Matters.