Budgets, Teachers, Taxes and Reform: Finding The Right Future for Missouri’s Public Schools
Influential advocates say money is only part of the challenge
By Mike Ferguson
(St. Charles, MO) – It’s always a touchy topic at the State Capitol but, this year, it’s expected to be a lightning rod of debate: how to fund and how to run Missouri’s public schools in another lean budget year.
In a recent “Missouri Viewpoints”, Amy Blouin from the liberal Missouri Budget Project and James Shuls from the libertarian Show Me Institute offered different takes on the challenge.
“Over the last decade” Blouin says, “the state’s budget and revenue has actually decreased by over 12%, particularly if you adjust for inflation…So, we looking at decreased revenue. The students haven’t declined but our funding that’s available for local school districts has.”
Shuls is a former classroom teacher and takes issue with that assessment.
“In real dollars, we’ve actually increased funding this year from last year.
“The truth of the matter is we’re doing a pretty good job of funding schools. It isn’t that we need to increase funding, It’s that we need to rethink how we’re running and operating our schools. From 1992 to 2008, in inflation-adjusted dollars,” Shuls continued, “we increased education funding by 40% and our attainment levels and our achievement have remained flat.”
If the basis of the debate can’t be agreed upon, how can any fixes gain consensus?
State lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have told Missouri News Horizon that education funding and policy will be front and center at some point in this year’s legislative session.
That won’t be limited to funding. Labor policy, including teacher tenure and academic freedom of schools to experiment with teaching techniques are likely to be debated.
“We really need to start changing the dynamic and rethinking public education because we can’t just keep increasing spending, not at the rate schools want us to at least.”
That dynamic, Shuls says, involves changes at both the local and the state levels.
“The state needs to give school districts more ability to be innovative, to have the authority to make the changes they need to make as they see them ‘on the ground’. I think that, too often, the state hamstrings schools from making those important staffing decisions.”
In the interview, Shuls says school districts need the freedom to implement more technology-based teaching and new methods, even if those aren’t standard in the state.
To Blouin, the root of the struggle continues to be funding and a lack of money, she says, is what’s hamstringing local schools from implementing improvements and developing teachers’ skills..
The Missouri Budget Project was among the backers of 2012’s Proposition B. But voters snuffed out that third attempt to raise taxes on some tobacco products in order to raise money for education. Blouin supported the measure but wasn’t surprised when it failed. That’s because past promises to fund education with taxes on vices haven’t always been kept in Missouri.
“What we were hearing from voters in the community was that they really want to be assured that the funding is going where the proposal says it is going to.”
Referring to controversies surrounding revenues from casinos in Missouri, Blouin continues “I think because of past, with the casinos, funding I think that Missouri voters are gun shy a little bit.”
Does that mean tax increases should be shelved for the time being? Not according to Blouin.
“It doesn’t mean to me that they’re not willing to consider a different tax proposal. I think that there are a lot of opportunities.”
Among the tax ideas she and the Missouri Budget Project hope lawmakers will consider this year is a sales tax on internet sales to Missourians.
Blouin and Shuls agree that, whatever the answers are, it impacts Missouri’s ability to not just educate children but also to develop a workforce that keeps and attracts jobs in the state for future generations.
On the web:
Missouri Budget Project: http://www.mobudget.org
Show Me Institute: http://www.showmeinstitute.org/