When Missouri House Budget Chairman Rick Stream, a Kirkwood Republican, bragged last month that lawmakers approved K-12 education funding at the “highest level in the history of Missouri,” he was telling the truth.
But not really.
Almost every budget in Missouri produces more education dollars than the one the year before. Mostly that’s because of the realities of inflation. If the education budget is measured in constant dollars, the story is entirely different. Schools have less buying power nearly every year.
Politicians want their constituents to think that they’re putting education at the top of their priority list because funding goes up in terms of total dollars. The lawmakers are insulting the intelligence of Missourians.
When Mr. Stream, or Speaker of the House Tim Jones, R-Eureka, or Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, talk about education funding, they rarely, if ever, use the most important comparison: the amount of general revenue dollars the state is investing in schools, compared with how much money they spend on everything else.
How the funding is computed
This is how priorities should be measured. If the state budget is a pie, the general revenue pie is the one that matters most. It’s the pile of money that the state uses to pay for schools, for health care, for roads and prisons.
In fact, as a percentage of the overall general revenue pie, the slice devoted to education has been shrinking since 2002. It’s gotten smaller under Democratic and Republican governors and under Democratic and Republican-controlled legislative bodies.
It’s gotten smaller because Missouri politicians don’t value education as much as they would have you believe.
Here are the important numbers:
In 2002, lawmakers spent 37 percent of the general revenue budget on education. While the gross number of dollars has mostly increased since then, the percentage of the total budget spent on education has decreased. Last year, lawmakers spent 36.5 percent of the total general revenue budget on education. The 2014 budget calls for a “historic” low of 35 percent.
The numbers are similar using total budget dollars (including federal pass-through money). A little more than 22 cents of every dollar in the state’s $24.8 billion total budget will go to education in 2014. Before 2005, at least 25 cents out of every dollar went to K-12 education.
Mr. Stream could just have accurately said that Missouri lawmakers funded K-12 schools in the 2014 budget at the lowest level in history, at least compared with other state priorities.
Put it in perspective
This is the perspective that is too often missing in Missouri budget and policy discussions.
Until Missouri actually makes education the priority elected officials pretend it is, then future generations will be ill-prepared to compete with children from other states and other countries.
The amount of money state lawmakers invest in K-12 schools is 40th in the nation, whether considered as per-pupil cost or based on personal income, according to Census Bureau statistics.
No matter how you slice it, Missouri’s lawmakers value education less than their peers in 39 other states do. Now they’re bragging about a budget that spends less money on education compared to other priorities than possibly any budget in Missouri history.
It’s time for actions to meet the rhetoric. It’s time for business leaders to impose their will on the lawmakers who beg them for campaign funds.
Does Missouri want education to be a top priority or not?
Money won’t solve all the woes of public schools, but it is a clear sign of a state’s priorities. In that regard, Missouri is falling behind.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.