Funding Education Protecting Missouri’s Families Is Right

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Protecting Missouri’s Families Is Right

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Missouri is 40th in the nation in state funding for schools. This isn’t good enough.

Spending 22 cents of every dollar in the overall state budget on education—where Missouri used to spend more than 25—isn’t good enough. Having the third-lowest average starting teacher pay in the country (only Montana and South Dakota are lower) isn’t good enough.

K-12 schools are underfunded by $400 millions of dollars each year. That’s according to the school funding formula written and passed into law by Republican majorities and signed by a Republican governor. That should alarm lawmakers of all political stripes. It should worry parents who want the best for their children. It should anger taxpayers who are being hit with higher local taxes to make up for the state’s unwillingness to do its job.

By law, the Missouri state auditor must determine every year whether the state owes taxpayers a refund under the various revenue and spending constrictions imposed by the Hancock Amendment.

That amendment, passed by voters in 1980, limits the amount of revenue the state can collect to 5.6 percent of Missourians’ total personal income, the same amount that funded state government in 1981. In effect, that is the state’s per-capita tax rate. If Missouri state government collects more than that, it owes refunds to taxpayers. A second provision also limits the amount of money the Legislature can raise in revenue each year without going to a vote of the people.

A shortsighted decision more than three decades ago resulted in a constitutional nightmare. It limits yearly budget discussions to how much damage should be done to children and poor people, rather than a debate over the best way to invest in Missouri’s future.

According to the annual state audit released in April 2015, Missouri is currently $4 billion under the Hancock threshold.

Think about what that means. If Missouri lawmakers had simply kept the effective tax rate in the state at the same 5.6 percent it was at in 1981, Missouri’s budget would be 15.3 percent bigger. Missouri would have $30 billion to spend, not $26 billion.

K-12 schools would be completely funded. Needed university building projects would not be on hold. The state’s road and highway system — among the most poorly funded per capita in the nation — would be solvent and contributing more to the economy. Programs for mental health and the developmentally disabled and other social services programs would be funded instead of cut back. State government would work. The economy would be boosted, all for 1981 prices.

Instead, Hancock enshrined Missouri’s race to the bottom in the state constitution. It will get worse before it gets better.

It’s not just that too many state leaders ignore decades of Missouri’s own experience, and blindly believe that pushing taxes even lower will boost the economy. In fact, the tax cuts scheduled to go into effect in Missouri in 2017 will only make a bad situation worse. Last year, the audit shows, the state only collected 3.9 percent of Missourians’ personal income. The various elements of Hancock won’t allow the state to get back to the 1981 limit of 5.6 percent.

This is economic madness, unless our goal is simply to starve state government out of existence. Goodbye public schools Goodbye safety net for seniors, the disabled and the poor. Goodbye economic development.

If all of this forced limitation on government spending were actually as effective in creating jobs as its followers would like to believe, Missouri would be flowing in an economic promised land. But it is not.

It’s time to imagine a new Missouri, one in which bold leaders promise to rebuild this state’s sputtering economy while sticking to the voters’ will that no more than 5.6 percent of their personal income would be used to fund state services.

$4 billion is sitting on the table. $400 million could be going for education.

Ask virtually any lawmaker in the Missouri Legislature what the state’s best economic development tool is and s/he’ll tell you investments in education.

Legislators think investing in education, while good, is not as good as raising taxes is bad.

Imagine the money parents would have in their pockets right now if we all invested a few more pennies in our lowest-in-the-nation taxes so that middle-class working folks didn’t have to take out thousands of dollars in federally subsidized loans so that their kids could go to a state university that a generation ago was affordable.

In addition, more spending—in targeted areas—can make a serious difference in the economic outcomes of poor children. A long-term study, focused on students between 1955 and 1985 and followed through 2011. Its findings shouldn’t be surprising, but in an era where many states are, like Missouri, struggling to fund public schools, the study should be must-reading in state capitols.

Three areas are identified where increased funding had the most long-term economic impact: increasing teacher salaries; reducing class size; and lengthening the school day. In addition, more funding is needed for children with special needs, pre-school education and special tutoring. These are the issues the Missouri Legislature should be debating.

“There are those who say it is all the parents’ fault. That’s understandable, but we’ve been saying that for decades. If the arms of the parents are broken, we all need to bend down and pick those children up,” Carl Peterson, former president of the Ferguson-Florissant school board, stated.

A new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that more money—directed in the right places—makes a huge difference in the economic futures of poor children. The study’s authors didn’t compare school spending to test results, as some others have done. They compared it actual life outcomes, such as earnings potential.

This study and similar studies have found spending on early childhood education to bring a big return on investment, the researchers found that a 20 percent increase in funding for low-income students of their 12 years of school yielded about 25 percent in increased earnings capacity as adults. Further, with increased funding, poor students stayed in school longer and were more likely to escape poverty as adults.

The study found “no discernible effects” of increased school spending on children from non-poor families.
However, it is a sign of progress that there is talk about a tobacco tax increase to fund early childhood education or higher education. But really, unless something is done to fix the Hancock Amendment, we’re only nibbling around the edges of need.

Protect Missouri’s families. The research is in, and $400 million for education is sitting on the table. It’s time for the Missouri Legislature to show real commitment to invest in Missouri’s most important resource: Its people. Economic gains will follow.

Fully funding our schools is Right for Missouri.