Opinion: Investing in Missouri public schools

Missourians, if you would be so kind, please indulge us by participating in a brief exercise. First, raise your hand if you would support proposals to increase our state’s public school teacher salaries — the salaries of those same teachers whose Social Security numbers recently were reported to be vulnerable to public access.

Second, keep your hand raised if your support would not waver if you were asked to pay higher taxes, such as income, sales or property to support higher teacher salaries.

Do your fellow Missourians agree with you?

If your hand remains raised, you identify with a slim majority of Missouri voters who support increasing teacher salaries, even conditional on higher taxes, per recent evidence collected through the SLU/YouGov Poll of a representative sample of the Show-Me State’s registered voters. This support, however, varies significantly across different types of voters, variation critical to informing how policymakers might approach addressing school spending in the upcoming 2022 legislative session.

In light of the devastating pandemic and State Auditor Nicole Galloway’s May 2021 school spending report, the topic of investments in public schools remains evergreen in Missouri and likely will gain steam in the coming legislative session given the state’s $2 billion budget surplus. Over the pandemic, opinions regarding public schools have shifted, including those pertaining to expenditures in support of public schooling.

National evidence from the Education Next Survey of Public Opinion indicates that support for spending declined over the past two years while support for increased teacher salaries declined modestly as well. This shift occurred on the heels of the “Red for Ed” movement of 2018 and 2019, otherwise known as the “Red State Revolt,” where teachers, largely in conservative states including our neighbors Oklahoma and Kentucky, went on strike in favor of improved compensation and school investments.

Through our recent statewide poll, we now know where public opinion currently stands in Missouri.

First, a majority (50.4%) of voters support increasing teacher salaries relative to a mere 6.6% who support salary reductions (the remainder support maintaining salaries). Second, a plurality of voters (47.5%) favors maintaining existing total school spending. Support for increased spending (36.1%), however, more than doubles that in favor of spending reductions (16.4%).

These figures are key to understanding if Missouri voters and their elected legislators would, or perhaps should, be likely to support measures to augment the state’s investments in public education.

Similarly, we now have more information about why Missouri voters may indicate the aforementioned preferences, or at least information on voter characteristics correlated with spending support.

First and perhaps unsurprisingly, political ideology is highly correlated with support. Liberals and moderates are more than four times more likely to support spending increases than their conservative counterparts. Similarly, they are also twice as likely to support some form of taxation increase to fund a spending expansion. Surprisingly, however, nearly one-third of conservative voters would support a form of tax expansion, support which pushes the group into the majority of Missouri voters.

Second, opinions of the quality of local public schools are key predictors of support for increased teacher salaries and total school spending. Those who rate their local public schools as fair or poor (rather than excellent or good) are twice as likely to support increased school spending in aggregate and more than 50% more likely to support increased teacher salaries.

Finally, school spending preferences could be due, at least in part, to the fact that Missouri’s state contributions to public school spending ranks very low in a national comparison – 49th according to the state Auditor’s office and within the bottom five states over the past decade according to our own calculations.

State average teacher salaries have remained similarly low, typically ranking in the bottom ten states nationwide.

In light of this evidence, how can our policymakers simultaneously meet public preferences and reduce spending inequality across Missouri? While municipalities, the state government, and the federal government each contribute to public school revenues, changes to state investments are often viewed as the clearest path to improving equity in funding allocations.

In an average year in Missouri, municipalities contribute nearly half of educational revenues, the state 40%, and the federal government approximately 10%. Though federal funding favors low-income and other disadvantaged students, in non-pandemic times its small magnitude limits its ability to compensate for inequalities in local revenue-raising capacities.

These differences are largely driven by vastly different property wealth across the state’s municipalities. Funding dictated by the state’s school funding formula depends, in part, on student characteristics including low-income, disability and English proficiency. Increasing state financial support provided to schools serving the largest shares of students who historically have the greatest educational needs would likely make funding more equitable and could increase teacher compensation.

While the federal government conferred significant contributions to school funding through three rounds of pandemic-induced stimulus funding, that boost expires in less than two years. Essentially, our state’s schools now find themselves navigating the continuing challenges presented by the 2020 shutdown while simultaneously planning for the pandemic’s aftermath.

At this point, it’s OK to lower your hand — so long as you promise to maintain statewide focus on public schooling.

As parents, teachers and school leaders continue to traverse the hardships wrought by the pandemic, it is imperative that policymakers match voter preferences by considering mechanisms to increase public investments in teacher salaries and total school spending.

Public will is there to pave the way to increase financial support for public education; now we just have to make it happen.

This commentary is by J. Cameron Anglum, an assistant professor of education policy and equity at St. Louis University’s School of Education; and Evan Rhinesmith, executive director at St. Louis University’s Policy Research in Missouri Education Center. Rhinesmith is also an instructor in SLU’s School of Education and is a former third- and fourth-grade teacher. The article is published from The Missouri Independent through a Creative Commons license.

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