Missouri Is 49th in a Meaningless Statistic!
Earlier this week a headline came across my Twitter feed blaring “Missouri ranked No. 49 in state K-12 funding in 2020.” It was from earlier this year, but the article somehow started making the rounds again. Maybe it has something to do with the Missouri Legislature prefiling bills for the 2022 session. Who am I to speculate?
Anyway, when the average person reads that headline, what do you think they see? It is most likely that they would think that Missouri is second to last of all the 50 states in what it spends on education. That would be a perfectly reasonable reading of that particular arrangement of words. It would also be wrong.
The article covers a report released by the Missouri Auditor’s office that examined spending trends in Missouri and compared them to other states around the country. Did that report find that Missouri was second to last in the amount of money that it spends? It did not.
In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2020 Missouri was 27th in school spending in the United States, with $11,249 in current spending per pupil per year. Importantly, this is not adjusted for cost of living. Even without that, Missouri is right in the middle of the pack.
No, what the auditor’s report did was look at the percentage of student funding that comes from the state and then compared that to the percentage of funding that comes from the state in other systems around the country, using data from a report by the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers union.
Now, we can set aside for a moment relying on the NEA, which has an obvious vested interest in increasing school spending. But we can still ask what, if anything, we should do with this information. Show-Me Institute analysts have been arguing that Missouri’s funding formula is broken for years. Reforming the funding formula is part of the 2022 Missouri Blueprint. Updating the formula to accurately measure local property tax wealth and thus local effort would be a huge improvement, as would treating charter schools better and providing more flexibility to parents as to where their children can take their funding. That said, using contrived statistics packaged deceptively to make that point isn’t right.
How much we should spend on schools has become a terribly muddled question. When polled, 58 percent of Missourians say that we should be spending more on education. That is, until they are told how much we actually spend. Then it drops to 32 percent. (Interestingly, it drops to 31 percent among school parents.)
Reports like the one from the auditor’s office do not help educate Missourians as to how much we actually spend and how that money is being put to use. It makes the worthy cause of funding formula reform more difficult. And that is a shame.