Missouri’s public schools are underfunded by $656 million — averaging about $700 for each student in the state — according to an analysis released on Wednesday, but school officials see some hope for relief in the budget debate now being held in Jefferson City.
The report issued by the Missouri Budget Project — “A Shaky Foundation” — said the state’s foundation formula, which is designed to make sure each of the state’s 520 school districts has an adequate financial floor, is getting nearly 20 percent less than it should.
Gov. Jay Nixon has called for more money for education in kindergarten through grade 12, and a House budget bill has increases for next year, though they are smaller than what Nixon wants.
Legislation passed last week by the House Budget Committee, before lawmakers began their spring break, includes a $122 million boost for elementary and secondary education. If rosier budget projections from the governor’s office come to pass, that increase would grow to $278 million.
Roger Kurtz, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, told reporters in a conference call Wednesday morning that the prospect of adding money to the formula is a welcome change from past years.
“I am much more optimistic about funding the formula at this point than I was a year ago,” Kurtz said. “The leadership of the governor on that issue has been a tremendous help.
“The work of the House budget chair to put money in the formula and find ways to fully fund the formula or put money into education is encouraging. I think we’re a lot more optimistic at this point.”
But Amy Blouin, who heads the Missouri Budget Project, said the financial shortfall up to this point has had a harmful effect on Missouri.
“By underfunding and failing to invest in quality education,” she said, “we are truly failing our children. We’re undermining our state’s economic development and our future.”
A wide variation
The effect of the underfunding varies widely among counties throughout the state, the analysis said, and even among districts in the same county. But the shortfall tends to be worse in rural areas compared to schools in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas.
Overall, nearly half of the counties in Missouri have schools that are underfunded by an average of $800 a student or more. The contrast can be seen in two counties in south central Missouri, where the shortfall in Pulaski County is $967 a student, highest in the state, while the same figure in adjacent Camden County is the lowest in the state, at $199 a student.
Even within Camden County, though, the report pointed out a large disparity — $74 a student in Camdenton but $871 a student in Stoutland.
A similar range can be found in St. Louis County. In the Bayless School District, the shortfall tops out at $876 a students; it’s $874 in Ritenour. At the other end of the scale, the underfunding is in the $30 range in such districts as Clayton, Brentwood, Kirkwood, Parkway and Ladue.
Statewide, 15 districts, or 3 percent of the total, are underfunded by $100 or less a student, while nearly five times as many, 72 districts, are underfunded by more than $900 a student. The highest per-student total is in Potosi in Washington County, at $978.
Because the state is not providing all of the money the formula calls for, school districts have had to reduce costs in various ways, Kurtz said.
Some have cut staff; others have put off buying new buses. In some cases, class sizes have grown, or schools have offered fewer courses.
“The big area that school districts are working on right now,” Kurtz said, “is the area of technology, and getting the technology in the classroom that the kids expect and need to perform on the new state assessments.
“So we’re looking at a lot of needs out there across the state, and we hope that we can start to fill this hole in the funding for K-12.”
Kurtz said some local districts have ballot issues that can help them raise money on their own. But he and Blouin said there doesn’t seem to be much appetite among Missouri's lawmakers for any increases in state revenue that could help support education.
Citing a number of areas, such as mental health and higher education, that are currently underfunded, not to mention bills that call for tax cuts, Blouin said:
“Right now, we want to protect the services we have.”
A victim of the recession
The last time the foundation formula was adjusted in Missouri was 2005. It was designed to make sure that all of the state's school districts had enough money to provide a solid education for their students, regardless of how much money they were able to raise locally from property taxes and other sources.
The formula was supposed to be fully funded by 2013, but because of a drop in state revenue, prompted by the recession, funding has fallen below mandated levels every year since 2010. The current level of $656 million is 17 percent below where it should be.
Local effort plays a role in school funding in more ways than one.
Among the various factors that go into the complicated calculations are average daily attendance, weighted to accommodate education that is more expensive, such as that for low-income or disabled students; a multiplier that changes the dollar target in areas where the cost-of-living is relatively high; and the wealth of an area, which will determine how much its local tax rate will generate.
Because some of those factors could actually lead to declining support from the state, some districts receive a “hold harmless” designation, meaning that their state funding remains at the same level that it was when the formula was last changed.
The question of the relationship between spending and the quality of education continues to be a matter of debate.
A study from the Cato Institute, for example, traces test scores and school spending and finds that while the number of dollars spent on education has risen steadily over the past 40 years, achievement as measured by SAT scores has remained flat, in Missouri and elsewhere.