The most important number in the jobs bill that will be the subject of a September special session of the Missouri legislature has nothing to do with how much the state might spend to lure Chinese cargo planes to St. Louis.
It's not the number of jobs the legislation might create if all the pieces fall into place. It's not the hypothetical millions of dollars in economic activity that might follow.
The key number is $1.5 billion.
That's the amount of real dollars that could be saved over 10 years if the jobs bill is coupled with reforms — caps, sunsets and outright cancellations — of some of the state's hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credit programs.
Those savings, hard as it will be for some business and special interests to give up, will be absolutely necessary if Missouri is ever to focus on what should be its No. 1 economic development opportunity: better schools and colleges.
This is not to downplay last week's positive news that lawmakers and Gov. Jay Nixon have agreed to a special session.
Most of the elements of the still-unwritten jobs bill, chief among them a plan that will offer incentives to turn Lambert-St. Louis International Airport into a foreign-trade hub, could be positive for the St. Louis region. That plan has the potential to help revitalize a city and region struggling to find its post-recession wings.
The jobs bill also would provide seed money for high-tech start-up firms that focus on biosciences. It also aims to keep home-grown companies in Missouri.
The state's central location, its low energy costs and its strong base of plant and animal research suggest reasonable odds for the success of those bets. But at their core, they are just that — bets.
Nobody knows for sure if they will work or how well.
Here's what we do know: For St. Louis and Missouri to thrive, support for education must be more than a political slogan. It must be the No. 1 goal of a coalition that includes Mr. Nixon, the Republicans who control thelegislature and the business community that has exerted pressure on those elected officials to call legislators back to Jefferson City.
Mr. Nixon likes to talk about how much he supports education. He did so again Thursday when he announced the special session in a speech at the Danforth Plant Science Center. He said the state had to "support every student who dreams of a job and a career."
He's right. But Missouri hasn't done that. In the past decade, state funding for higher education per capita has been dismal, standing at 45th lowest in the nation last year, according to the Center for the Study of Education Policy.
In fact, Missouri led the nation in percentage decrease of support for higher education in 2010-11. Each of the last two years, Mr. Nixon has cut scholarship funding for those students with dreams. If jobs are the ultimate goal, that's the wrong approach.
The governor, the legislature and the business community all share the blame for being too consumed with tax-credit programs whose effect on job creation never has been adequately quantified. That focus has come at the detriment of the one proven economic development strategy: producing top-notch schools.
A 2008 joint study of Stanford University and the University of Munich is just one of many that makes the direct tie between quality of education and economic growth. "The accumulated evidence … is that the quality of education … has powerful economic effects," the authors concluded. "Economic growth is strongly affected by the skills of workers. What people know matters."
Consider the juxtaposition of two stories on the front page of Thursday's Post-Dispatch.
There was the story that St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley had appeared at Lambert with legislative and business leaders to announce the China hub compromise.
But at the bottom of the page was a story reporting that a second area judge had given a St. Louis student the right to transfer from an unaccredited city school to a district in the suburbs.
Mr. Slay and Mr. Dooley understand that education is the preeminent challenge if the St. Louis region is to be truly strong again. To attract businesses and families that want to raise their children here, the schools have to get much better.
It's a complicated problem that involves more and smarter funding. It requires traditional public school supporters and advocates of reform measures such as charter schools to work together.
Colleges and universities will have to give up regional turf battles and consolidate programs so that the best ones can compete globally. Students with dreams will need a financial boost to afford college.
Tax credits may help revitalize a city and lure young professionals in the short term. But those young people are leaving in droves, census data tell us, once they have children.
Incentives might lure airlines and freight forwarders and data centers to the region, but those businesses will demand a highly qualified workforce. If Missouri wants to attract employers, a well-educated workforce is job one.
The China hub incentives in the pending jobs bill are well conceived and worth the effort because they don't pay off until jobs show up.
But support for such legislation should be contingent on the state's civic and business leaders finally saying: Enough already with stealing from education.
That was the clear point made last year by two men on ideological extremes — Mr. Nixon, a Democrat, and state Sen. Jason Crowell, a Republican — when they joined forces to push the state to rein in its out-of-control tax credit programs.
Those programs diverted money from education, both men said, to the detriment of Missouri students.
The tentative agreement for the special session has shown us this: When St. Louis area business leaders unite behind an issue, they can put tremendous pressure on politicians who otherwise have no incentive to work together.
If those leaders truly want to move St. Louis and Missouri forward, they will focus on education. We'd like to see them get behind building a 21st-century revenue structure as well, but that's a tougher sell.
Long-term economic development in Missouri won't come from China. It will come from better schools.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.