Budget Austerity Treats Public-School Parents Like Criminals
By Jeff Bryant
Jul 20 2017
In researching an upcoming article I’m writing about the St. Louis school system, and the district’s ongoing funding crisis, I came across an astonishing example of who wins and who loses in current approaches to government budget balancing.
As a local St. Louis reporter tells it, during a public meeting about a proposed new $130 million 34-story apartment building in the city, alderman Joe Roddy used a slideshow to make a case for why the city should give the developers 15 years of reduced property taxes, a $10 million subsidy, in exchange for some additional retail space and 305 high-end, luxury apartments downtown.
In a slide show titled “How the City Makes & Spends Money,” Roddy, a Democrat mind you, laid out a hierarchy of those who “make money” for the city at the top and those who cause the city to “spend money” at the bottom.
At the top of his slide were businesses. In the middle were residents with no children and retirees. And at the very bottom – in the tier of city dwellers who place the biggest financial burden on government – were “criminals and residents with children in public school.”
When told that some might take offense at equating families with children needing free public schools to criminals, Roddy countered that the project would “target tenants who are young professionals without children. Attracting that demographic to the city is crucial, he says, and after the tax abatement ends, the revenue windfall for the city will be significant.”
By the way, St. Louis has a history of extending tax abatements for developers to longer terms.
Winners and Losers
The thrust of Roddy’s remarks is well understood by all – in a budget environment of forced scarcity, there are increasingly strong demarcations between winners and losers, and parents who plan on sending children to free public schools are increasingly losers.
To be fair to Roddy, a great deal of St. Louis’s financial constraints, particularly in relation to the city’s ability to cover the cost of education, is the fault of the state of Missouri.
A 2015 accounting of state school funding found Missouri is “underfunding its K-12 schools by $656 million statewide, nearly 20 percent below the required level.” The budget situation for families with children has not improved a lot since then, with this year’s installment cutting spending on school buses, higher education, and social services.
Missouri is one of 27 states that spends less on education than it did in 2008.
The severity of Missouri’s budget austerity seems specifically targeted at districts like St. Louis that happen to be stuck with lots of low-income families with children (Where would they fall in Roddy’s hierarchy?).
A 2016 study conducted by NPR found that St. Louis schools on average spend considerably less per student compared to the highest spending districts in the St. Louis area.
Another more recent analysis by EdBuild finds St. Louis schools have a cost adjusted revenue per student that is nine percent below Missouri’s average. The district gets only 35 percent of its revenue from the state even though the district is challenged to educate a student population in which 68 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measurement of poverty.
The trend of financial inequity for St. Louis schools is worsening, according to Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker, who finds that the district, since 1995, is increasingly at a funding disadvantage compared to the rest of the state.