Three times this month, Gov. Jay Nixon has made a $600 million promise.
Before the Missouri School Boards Association, and again last week before both higher education and K-12 education leaders, Nixon pledged to fully fund the state’s funding formula for elementary and secondary schools.
Should he actually keep this promise — and he’ll need the legislature’s help — it would be profoundly good news for Missouri’s schoolchildren and the state’s economy.
The timing became all the more important Thursday when the Normandy School Board voted 3-2 to stop paying the transfer bills to other St. Louis-area school districts educating hundreds of children from the unaccredited north St. Louis County district.
Like everything in the transfer crisis, there’s plenty of blame to go around for this troubling decision, but assigning blame won’t educate children. Properly funding school districts, however, will help.
In the current budget year, while the Democratic governor and the Republicans who run the legislature bragged about “record” K-12 funding, the reality is that they passed a budget that leaves the foundation formula about $600 million short. This even though the formula was enshrined in state law as a response to court mandates for “adequate” state funding.
As a percentage of the general revenue budget, lawmakers last spring spent less money on schools than they had in any year in recent history.
Missouri continues to lag behind other states, ranking 40th in the nation in terms of state funding for schools; even lower when it comes to higher education support.
So when Nixon told higher-education leaders on Monday to expect a “significant” boost in funding next year, while also pledging to fully fund the K-12 foundation formula by the end of his term, those were lofty and valiant promises.
Let’s hope they’re not lofty, valiant and empty.
Nixon’s hope is that the “rational center” coalition that he helped build over the summer to defeat a veto override of House Bill 253 can now grow itself into the sort of political force that can do what governors and lawmakers in Missouri have refused to do for decades: pull the Show-Me State out of its low-tax, race-to-the-bottom mentality. In uniting rural Republicans and urban Democrats to fight back the proposal that would have cut taxes for the wealthy and starved already hurting schools of funding, Nixon found a strong argument: “They could support education or they could support House Bill 253, but they could not do both.”
He was right, and he won a historic battle. But all he needed to stop the override was a third plus one — 55 votes — from the House’s 163 members. The tax-cutters still had significantly more votes (94 to 67) than the side that stood up for education.
In the legislative arena, blocking a bad bill is a lot easier than passing a good one, especially when $600 million or more is involved.
This is the great contradiction that is Missouri politics. Everybody — Republican, Democrat, business leader, reformer — says he or she is “pro-education.” Most say they want to properly fund schools. But their definitions of “properly” vary widely.
Even Nixon, while pushing for full funding, falls prey to this.
This week, he pointed to a College Board study of four-year university costs that noted Missouri’s tuition costs rose more slowly in the past five years than those of any other state.
“This independent report confirms once again that these efforts have helped make our state a national leader when it comes to college affordability,” the governor touted.
Not so fast and not so much.
The same study pointed out that Missouri’s state support for colleges and universities is seventh lowest in the nation. Its average in-state tuition is higher than every border state except for Illinois and Kentucky. Students and their parents have been bearing the brunt of state cuts for more than a decade as state support drops and the burden of funding education moves in the wrong direction.
A little skepticism is in order. Nixon’s full-funding pledge is welcome, but talk is cheap. Action takes political courage and persistence. Show-me and all that.
Recall that just last year, Mr. Nixon told lawmakers in no uncertain terms that if they didn’t pass ethics reform, he would take that issue directly to the citizens.
The citizens are still waiting.
We don’t know how Mr. Nixon plans to find the money for fully funding K-12 schools or the “significant” hike in higher education funding he now promises. Our hope is that he’s got something more in mind than budget tricks like the Duck Dynasty lottery promotion and magical promises of new revenue that highlight this year’s budget.
Just as important, the new money must come tied to a fix to the state’s transfer law so that students seeking new opportunities in better districts don’t bankrupt the schools they leave behind. That’s what is happening in Normandy and Riverview Gardens. Next year it could be the much larger and equally unaccredited Kansas City School District.
Children should be able to seek better opportunity, but receiving districts shouldn’t be receiving more money than home districts were able to spend on the children in the first place. It’s a recipe for disaster.
The coalition of the reasonable that Nixon assembled to defeat House Bill 253 could be a powerful force if he can keep it together. It’s the sort of rational, grass-roots collection of educators, business leaders and elected officials that can make stronger funding of education in Missouri more than a slogan chanted from the Capitol steps.
Missouri’s promise to its children, made first by a state constitution in 1875 that made funding education a priority, is not being fulfilled. That the governor wants to fulfill that promise before he leaves office is a very good thing.
Make it so.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.