GUEST COMMENTARY: Quality education will benefit south-central Missouri

Tuesday, July 24, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

I read with great interest the story published a few days back in the Columbia Missourian, a newspaper product of the Missouri School of Journalism. The storyline focused on four students attending Missouri State University-West Plains. I had been interviewed by the writer, and from the questions and my comments, I expected quite a different story.

The 10 counties of south-central Missouri — Howell, Oregon, Shannon, Texas, Douglas, Ozark, Wright, Carter, Reynolds and Wayne — are populated by the lowest income and least educated populations in the state of Missouri. In another University of Missouri article, written in 1940, the phrase "This is an area of persistent poverty" was used.

It was a poverty area 72 years ago and remains the lowest income area of the state today. Along with the lowest incomes, the people are the least educated in Missouri.

In several of these counties, approximately 40 percent of the adult population did not finish high school. In Shannon County, 27.5 percent of the babies born are to mothers without a high school degree. This poverty is generational.

In this response to the Missourian article, I am tempted to use the trite expression, "These are the best of times, these are the worst of times." In a state with all the qualities of Missouri, with a population of Missouri that exceeds the national average in many respects, why is south-central Missouri this area of persistent poverty?

Sociologists could ponder this question without finding clear answers. I do, however, believe there are some beliefs, whether true or not, that might be examined. One reason could be the rough terrain and the thin soil conditions. But, the soil is no thinner or terrain rougher than many of the other Ozark plateau counties south of Interstate 44. 

Another reason could be that the Scots-Irish settlers that came into this region, mostly from Kentucky and Tennessee, were mountain people from the Appalachian areas and might not have had a high regard for education as a community value. 

And finally, this was an area that, during the Civil War, was totally devastated by Northern as well as Southern troops that made raids into these south central counties without establishing any military or civil law. Gangs of guerrillas operated with impunity toward any authority.

These few reasons, and perhaps more, are causes, but, regardless of the reason, the statistics remain. South-central Missouri has the lowest income and the least educated population in the state. I have spoken to approximately 61 civic and professional groups over the last six months in the 10-county area. My message is clear and simple. If we are to break the culture of generational poverty, we must make significant gains in the educational levels and the income levels of the people.

I made remarks to some of the members of the Board of Governors of Missouri State University during their recent meeting in West Plains. In these informal remarks, I said that on the basis of need, the West Plains campus was the most important campus in the Missouri State system. The same could be said of the Drury University campuses at Cabool, Thayer, Licking, and Ava. Southwest Baptist Univeristy has a campus at Mountain View, and Three Rivers Community College is attempting more learning centers in addition to their Van Buren site. The need is strong.

College education and a degree in a field was once regarded as a ticket to a better lifestyle in America. Now, the rising cost of a college education and the associated burdens of student loans might make this seem less of a certain outcome. With job markets in constant turmoil and questionable skill levels required for many positions, it would be good to question if too many marginal students are attending college.

My belief is that each person is assisted by a basic education and that we should not set artificial barriers on persons attempting to attend college. Years ago the debate was about an eighth-grade education and whether high school was necessary for the majority of the young people. Today, we do not debate who goes to high school, and we should not be arguing about if our people should go to college. This decision is best made by the individual.

The growing number of jobs in the United States are not in agriculture, nor in manufacturing. Jobs today require technical skills, taught today in many colleges.  However, young people — some nontraditional students — do not always immediately seek their potential. Many times these students change as they mature. A higher education allows this progression. Labor market analysis shows that demand for people with post secondary certificates has grown faster than the supply. This accounts for an earning gap of 22 percent more for men with some college but no degree. Men with a bachelor's degree earn about twice as much as those with no college. I am certain the statistics are very similar for women.

While it is true that some people should not go to college, for some who do attend, it just doesn't work out. But, for the vast majority, their life will be better if they have some higher education or training. Poor people get an inferior education.  We spend less on their schools.  

In a recent television news story on KOMU in Columbia, a comparison was made between Ladue and Cabool schools. In Ladue, the spending per student is $13,000 per year. In Cabool, it is $8,164 per year. In Ladue, 94 percent of their students go to college. In Cabool, it is 54 percent.  

Teachers at Ladue High School are paid $60,000 per year. In Cabool, teachers at the high school are paid just $35,000. These numbers are not the top and the bottom of the range. In Missouri the highest expenditure per student is $16,000 and the lowest expenditure is $7,000.  This wide discrepancy is proof that poorer districts do not get the quality education that some of our urban districts receive.

The spending was obviously thousands of dollars less per student in Cabool, and the course selection was greatly limited in the south central Missouri town. We should not restrict college entrance based on a high school education that is less than adequate. To do so would be making the gap even wider in south-central Missouri where we are already the least educated population in Missouri.

Education is expensive. We should work toward making the cost of education lower and focus philanthropic efforts on providing students with scholarships so desperately needed for education and the opportunity it provides.

That is one of the goals of the 31 community leaders from the 10 counties of south-central Missouri that have come together in the last three months. This group, SOAR, is the only regional organization to recognize our situation and work to change it. Under the leadership of President Mary Sheid, the group has great potential.

Wendell Bailey served in several elected positions for Missouri, including as a U.S. representative.

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