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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary on Education: Does Missouri spend enough?

Clarion Ledger | Jackson, MS

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon June 2 2008: Now that this year's legislative sesson is over and the campaigns are in full swing for the primary, Missourians ought to look at what's needed and what's been done on several important issues. Among the most of important of these is education funding.

Some Missourians, including a number of elected officials, are proud that their state is known as a “low tax, low spend” state. This long-standing fiscal propensity crosses party lines and is an integral feature of Missouri’s political culture. Naturally, the state’s parsimony affects many policy areas including elementary and secondary and higher education. Missouri’s low level of investment in human capital compares unfavorably to its surrounding states, as the following table illustrates.

StateRank in per capita incomeState & local per capita revenueState & local per capita spendingSpending rank elem & secSpending rank higer ed

Source: U.S. Census 2000, Governing Sourcebook 2005. Except for per capita income rank, figures are from FY 2004-05.

Although the data are a few years old, they accurately represent long-term taxing and spending patterns. Missouri clearly is at the bottom in funding for the development of human capital. This does not bode well for the state’s long-term economic development. In a global economy with local industry shrinking, a highly trained workforce is needed to attract jobs. Missouri is barely growing on a number of scales. It is remarkable that Arkansas — almost last in per capita income — is investing more in education. Clearly Iowa and Kansas are putting sizeable resources into their colleges and universities.

The economic vicissitudes of recent years played havoc with income in all the states. Missouri’s answer has been to keep raising tuition so that students in the UM system now pay more than any of their counterparts in the Big 12. Raising tuition can have a reverse effect on enrollment. Students who wish to continue borrow more and more and work more hours at off-campus jobs, sometimes affecting their scholarship.

For fiscal 2009, the General Assembly passed a budget that contains an 8.9 percent increase for higher education. For four year colleges and universities, the legislature increased appropriations by $43 million — a 5.6 percdent increase. These increases will be helpful but more will be needed to improve the situation of higher education relative to our neighbors. And enhancing Missouri’s four year colleges and universities could pay long-range dividends. In an increasingly technological age, investment in human capital is part of any economic development activity.

The Legislature also increased funding for Access Missouri scholarships that will aid middle class families, allocating $23.8 million in additional funds. That, too, is a significant improvement but substantial investment is also needed in facilities and faculty. A highly ranked public university is an economic plus. It’s not just tax and spend. And, of course, education begins with K-12. The Show Me state needs to make a greater effort to produce a 21st century workforce.

Committing additional resources will bring about stronger human capital over time. The political culture and the disposition of the legislature are not always favorable to this endeavor. But if your surrounding states are all ahead of you, what kind of future does that portend?

Now is the time to ask candidates were they stand on education funding.

Lana Stein, St. Louis, is professor emerita of political science, University of Missouri at St. Louis. 

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