By Ezra Bitterman

Missouri News Network

While Missouri’s spending on public education has grown as a dollar amount, it has shrunk in proportion to total spending over the past 20 years.

About $3 billion in pandemic-era federal investments for Missouri public education inflated total spending, but was used for short-term needs like remote school, child care subsidies and various grants, rather than for long-term investments.

This federal investment masked a decline in state-generated spending on public education. About 40% of the $9 billion spent by the state on education in 2024 came from the federal government, compared to 20% in 2004. Because the federal investment inflated all areas of the state budget, it didn’t increase public education funding relative to the entire state budget.

Meanwhile, states that used to fare similarly to Missouri in education outcomes have sprung ahead. In 2013, Illinois and Missouri ranked 26th and 27th in eighth-grade reading. In 2022, Illinois moved up to 12th while Missouri fell to 33rd, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a program run through the U.S. Department of Education.

In the 2004 fiscal year budget, 25% of the total dollars went to K-12 education versus 19% in 2024.

General revenue — money received from state income, sales and corporate taxes — is also spent less on education. In 2004, 36% of general revenue was spent on education versus 26% this fiscal year.

Education is a complex subject involving more than just dollars and cents. But digging into the finances, two problems have arisen from a lack of education spending: stagnation of the state adequacy target and inequities in how much money each school district gets.

A forgotten formula

The foundation formula determines how much the state gives to each school district. It factors in attendance, the cost of living in the district, the amount the county can provide to the district and the state adequacy target.

The state adequacy target is the amount of money provided per student by the state. It’s meant to be re-evaluated every two years by the state legislature and adjusted for inflation, but it has shrunk over the past 17 years.

In 2007, the target was $9,575 after adjusting for inflation. In 2024, it was $6,375 after not being adjusted for the past four years. During those four years, inflation has risen 20% while the foundation formula was funded at about the same level.

The 2025 fiscal year budget, which is currently being considered by the Senate, would increase the target by about $400.

Funding inequities across Missouri’s school districts

Missouri school districts are mainly funded through county property tax receipts. Former State Auditor Nicole Galloway found that Missouri school districts get 32% of their funding from the state, ranking 49th in the country.

Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, feels the burden on counties creates inequities in the state’s education system.

“You see a lot of disparity in funding because the state is not sending a ton of money through the state adequacy target,” Arthur said. “School districts increasingly rely on their local tax base, and there are just some parts of the state where that doesn’t exist. So it is really also an equity issue.”

Certain counties with strong property values, like St. Charles County, can spend more than $17,000 per student, while Texas County, in a rural area of the state, can spend about $11,000 per student. Columbia Public Schools spends about $14,000 per pupil, of which $4,577 comes from the state.

The legislature has put measures in place over the past few years that would decrease attendance in public schools. In 2021, the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Program was passed. The bill allows Missourians to donate up to half of their state income taxes to low-income families and children with Individualized Education Programs for private school expenses.

A bill this session that’s awaiting Gov. Mike Parson’s signature would expand that program and open up Boone County to charter schools. While charter schools and private school vouchers can provide families with more options, they are also detrimental to public school funding.

A key aspect of the foundation formula is attendance. When schools face dwindling attendance, their funding is reduced. It’s estimated that if 10% of CPS students moved to a charter school, it would cost the district about $6 million annually. If 10% moved to a private school, it would cost about $8 million.

Overall, the state ranks 35th in the country in per-pupil spending.

Missouri revenues are projected to stagnate over the next few years, making it difficult to envision major changes to education funding. The state’s general revenue will have to start funding more of the education system as those federal dollars are quickly running out.

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