The Aiken strategy for Missouri education

No, not Todd.   George.

George Aiken, once the dean of the United States Senate, a Senator from Vermont,  eventually decided the Vietnam conflict was a lost cause.  He was lukewarm about the whole thing anyway and finally declared, “The United States could well declare unilaterally…that we have ‘won’ in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam.”

Through the years the statement has been boiled down to, “Declare victory and withdraw.”

It’s happening in the capitol, where the majority lawmakers are about to declare victory in school funding and—


Your observer has commented in the past about the legislature’s refusal to meet its funding promises to public elementary and secondary education that were part of the School Foundation Formula adopted in 2005. It went into effect for the 2006 school year.  Lawmakers in those days realized the state did not have the money to put the formula into full effect for the 2006 year so they decided to phase in full funding during a seven-year period.

That might have been fine if the economy had continued to perk along but the legislature, as it often does, did not anticipate that the economy might dip, fall, descend precipitously, CRASH.  The Missouri legislature has never been real good at dealing with funding issues by making tax policy flexible enough to deal with the ups and downs of the economy.  There is usually a belief that everything will just hum right along.  Such shortsightedness, especially on tax and fiscal matters, is legendary. And it has been detrimental.

The economy took a dive a couple of years into this school funding program.  Governors of both parties and legislators were able to find a little money to increase funding, enough to brag that schools “are getting more state aid than they have ever received,” a rather disingenuous statement that refused to acknowledge the state was not keeping its 2005 promise. And as the legislature slid deeper into the slogan of “right sizing” state government, it didn’t even try to do what it promised public schools it would do in 2005.

So now, more than a decade after the legislature passed a school aid formula that it knew it could not fully fund and in the years since when it hasn’t even tried to meet that promise, it is going to declare a victory and withdraw.   The House of Representatives has passed a Senate bill that “Modifies the definition of ‘current operating expenditures’ and ‘state adequacy target’ for the purposes of state funding…”

Aww, what the heck.  We’ve never met our responsibility and we don’t care if we ever do.  Let’s just rewrite the law so we can change the definition of full-funding of K-12 public education.  We’re hundreds of millions of dollars below where we should be.  So let’s just change the law so that obligation that we don’t plan to meet anyway just goes away.  And then we can tell the folks back home that we’re giving schools more than they’ve ever gotten. Hooray for us!

Governor Nixon says passage of the bill will let the legislature walk away from being about $420 million dollars short of what our public school districts should be getting in state aid.

We won’t tell local taxpayers that we are shifting the responsibility for that $420 million dollars to them.  If they want their school district to have adequate funding—at least the kind of “adequate” funding we had promised them in 2005—they will have to pay more local taxes.  And if they don’t want to do that, fine. It’s their decision.  Local control is important to us, except when we say it isn’t, and this is one of those times when we say it is because we can duck our responsibility at the state level and brag about the latest tax cut that might put sixty cents a month back in their pockets. 

And we won’t mention that we’re not even fully funding the new system.  We’ve cut the responsibility deficit from $420 million down to about $55 million dollars.  We’ll just tell the voters that we’ve cut a state deficit  by 87% and they’ll think we’re doing a fine job and they’ll blindly vote to send us back to do similar great work next year.   

So instead of trying to find a formula that gives every child an equal base amount of state aid, we’ll let our school districts be all over the map in the money available to provide basic education. We won’t even try to fund a basic equal opportunity for education. And since school districts repeatedly send their students out into the streets to sell candy or popcorn or Christmas wrapping paper and stuff like that, they can just send them out to go door to door even more, peddling something that will help their district pay the light bill. 

Nixon has expressed a lack of willingness to accept the legislature’s thinking.  Don’t be surprised if he vetoes the bill.  But, of course, the party of “right sizing government” has enough votes in both the House and the Senate to override the veto.

Get ready for a lot more rings of the doorbell by children begging for money for this or that school program and a lot more student car washes, folks,.  Because the legislature is washing its hands of its school funding obligations.

Perhaps it is time for every school superintendent in the state to calculate how much their school districts could have gotten if the legislature had been meeting its self-imposed obligations for the last decade—and then listing the things the district has not been able to do to educate the public’s children because of that failure.  And maybe they should recount the number of school levies that voters have approved to make up for that difference, school levies that would not have been necessary.  And maybe they should mention how their legislators voted on this bill.

They’d have nothing more to lose by doing that.

And when their legislators come home in May after passing this bill and hold a town hall meeting or get a session summary article published in the local paper in which they huff and puff about giving schools a record amount of money, maybe their constituents will look at them with raised eyebrows and ask, “Really?”

“Who are you kidding?”







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