A little while ago, a Cole County judge ruled that Missouri gives enough money to public school districts. A main argument was that more money spent in a school district doesn’t itself increase student achievement, and that Missouri’s education spending was growing too fast.
The goal has always been to spend money to help students. The court ruled that Missouri was spending enough. Based on the ruling, what we would expect to see over the course of the next few years is a leveling of total spending on public education in Missouri. If the state was the only one handing out money for education, we would see just that.
But schools don’t receive state funds alone. Though state spending is not growing as fast as before, school districts can always ask their communities for more money.
As I’ve been looking over election results for school financial issues, occasionally I’ll stumble across a recent news article about a district’s election. When I do, superintendents are often quoted as saying that a property tax increase is needed because the state just isn’t providing as much money as the school district had counted on. In the lawsuit, more than 240 Missouri school districts had joined together to charge that they weren’t getting enough from the state.
And, while the court ruled otherwise, school districts have proven that they can get money in other ways. It’s not just the state that controls the public education finance spigot.
From 2002 to 2004, the total amount that the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) spent on education decreased. The fall from 2003 to 2004 was drastic — more than $100 million (all dollars here and throughout this post, including the figure below, are adjusted for inflation and calculated in 2008 dollars). The last time funding decreased was in 1990 and 1991 (click to enlarge):
So, state aid to schools fell. How did school districts react? Well, they asked local voters for more money.
In the April 2004 election, about 25 percent of school districts asked their voters for some type of money. About 13.4 percent asked for tax increases, about 5.8 percent asked voters to waive state-mandated school tax decreases and about 7.5 percent asked voters to approve district-issued bonds. (For shrewd readers, a few districts asked for two or more of these, so the percentage breakdown adds up to a little more than 25 percent.)
In short, 2004 was a big year for Missouri public school district financial elections.
“We had an unusually large number of local tax proposals that year,” said Jim Morris, DESE director of information. Part of the reason many districts asked for tax levy increases was because of the state funding decline. “It was when the state was squeezing the budget and withholding money,” Morris said.
Bottom line: When the state cut back, districts asked voters to step up. And they did.
Of the 139 financial issues put before school district voters in the April election, 107 passed. The success rate for bonds, levy increases and tax decrease waivers was about the same, 76 percent.
This isn’t routine. From the school election results I’ve been looking at, a 76-percent success rate for school financial issues is high, especially for tax increase proposals. A 50-percent success rate is much more normal.
This shows that if state funding falls short, school districts go to voters instead of just making do with less. And, in 2004, voters said yes.
State funding for education is not declining. But it certainly isn’t growing as fast — and school districts have taken notice. With the information I have, I can’t say yet how heavily they’re going to lean on local dollars, but I’m curious.
It is clear that the state does not control education funding totally. If 2004 is any indication, there’s more than one way to pay.