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TONY'S TAKE

Messenger: From 4-day weeks to charter debate, Missouri has a school funding crisis

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St. Louis Public Schools parents and advocates ride bus to Jefferson City to lobby lawmakers

Carron Johnson (center) gets on a bus carrying a protest sign as Nicole Williams (left), chief of staff for St. Louis Public Schools superintendent Kelvin Adams, coordinates logistics with other people taking a bus ride to Jefferson City to lobby lawmakers on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. There were about 20 people on the bus and more who went by car to lobby lawmakers on House and Senate bills which would change provisions known as 'local aid' for how public and charter schools are funded.

Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Jess Piper connected the dots in Missouri’s education debate.

Piper lives in Hopkins, just north of Maryville, where she has been a longtime American literature teacher at the public high school. She’s a relatively rare Democrat in this slice of northwest Missouri, running for state representative in the House District 1 race.

The other day, as Missouri lawmakers were debating a bill (House Bill 1522) that would funnel about $18 million from the St. Louis Public Schools to give over to charter schools in the city, here’s what she wrote on the social media platform Twitter.:

“What does defunding education look like in Missouri? It looks like charters in urban areas and 4-day weeks in rural areas. Schools in higher poverty areas bear the brunt of experimental education. Our kids are test subjects.”

She’s not wrong.

One of the truths about Missouri that doesn’t get told enough is that there is a lot of potential common ground between urban areas and rural areas that often find themselves divided in legislative debates. Much of that common ground relates to poverty, which tends to predominantly affect white people where Piper lives and Black people in cities.

There is deep poverty in rural Missouri, and yet its Republican lawmakers often seem more interested in proposing legislation that they think would solve St. Louis problems, while exempting their constituents from the same solutions.

On the day Piper wrote that tweet, a former colleague of mine, Springfield News-Leader education reporter Claudette Riley, published a story that shows how widespread the four-day week in rural Missouri schools is becoming. There are now 128 school districts in Missouri — about 25% of all public school districts in the state — that have gone to a four-day school week, with many more considering the decision.

The reason in nearly all cases is the same: money.

After the Great Recession, when state revenue dried up in a state that already woefully underfunded public education, Missouri made it legal for school districts to cut a day from their school week. Those that made the move, and keep making the move, are mostly in rural areas, and the reasons superintendents and school boards give is always lack of funding.

They don’t have the money to recruit and retain enough teachers or staff. Turning the lights out one day a week will save money. The pandemic has made things even worse.

Of course, as Piper points out, the very Legislature that allowed the change to four-day weeks has long been part of the problem. In the past decade, Missouri has never ranked higher than 47th in terms of state funding to public schools. The current rank is 49th.

When the Republicans who run the Legislature brag of “fully funding” the state aid formula that determines how much each school district gets, it’s only because they changed the law, reducing the amount of money that is needed, a few years ago.

Missouri’s per pupil funding falls at a middle-of-the-road national ranking, but that’s only because wealthy suburban districts can afford to raise property taxes to make sure their students have all the money they need and raise the average.

And about those teachers whom rural school districts say they can’t recruit? That’s because Missouri’s starting teacher pay ranks 50th in the nation.

Amid all this, it’s no wonder the annual debate over charter schools funding gets so emotional. Some of the people on both sides of the debate use Black kids in St. Louis as a cudgel, accusing opponents of not caring about their success. Meanwhile, none of the rural lawmakers imposing a St. Louis-specific solution on one school district even have to ponder the charter vs. public school debate in their own backyards.

That’s because rural lawmakers, as much as they tout charters in the city, won’t vote for them in their own districts. What’s good for the city goose isn’t OK for the rural gander.

That doesn’t seem fair. Neither does this:

The debate that matters most is the one the Missouri Legislature won’t have: When will it fund public schools, in the cities and every tucked-away rural outpost, at a level that doesn’t have school boards turning to four-day school weeks or experimental concepts to provide the education that the state constitution says is required?

Put another way: When will Missouri’s race to the bottom end?

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