I am scared for the future of Missouri public schools.
The Missouri GOP supermajority has been defunding our public schools for over a decade, but the last five years have been at breakneck speed.
Missouri is 50th in the nation for starting teacher pay. We are 49th in the nation for educational funding. The state only supplies 32% of the funding schools need to open their doors, turn on the lights, and pay teachers.
The rest of the funding comes from property taxes, which sets up an incredibly inequitable system in which children access better-funded schools according to their zip code. But, there is even worse news. 30% of Missouri schools are on a 4-day week due to the lack of funding. 30% of schools in our state lose an average of 85 academic hours per year even with an extended day.
This short week is a nightmare for folks trying to find daycare one day per week, especially hitting women hard. Several Missouri mothers are forced to work around the day off as childcare is not easy to find in our small communities.
Sadly, the 4-day schedule has now turned into a recruiting tool for keeping teachers in rural schools. We are losing our best teachers to border states with higher salaries. My own son, a Special Education teacher, finished his teaching degree at Northwest Missouri State University and then crossed the state line into Iowa where teachers start anywhere from 8K-12K higher than in our state. He is Missouri proud but couldn’t afford to pay his rent on a Missouri teacher’s salary.
We are at a tipping point.
Missouri Republican legislators have promised to defund public education even further. They passed a voucher scheme in 2021 that will basically allow Missourians to pay their taxes directly to private schools. A full voucher program, taxpayer money directly to private religious schools through the budget, will be a goal of MO GOP lawmakers in the 2024 session.
There are also several Missouri legislators talking about “school choice”. That is a misnomer because there is no choice in rural Missouri or anywhere except the cities and some suburbs. School choice implies that a school will open in my town of 480 people. That is not likely, and we are just left with defunded public schools in rural Missouri.
The public tax money previously allocated for public schools is now available to private and religious schools that are not accountable to the same standards that public schools must achieve. These schools do not have to employ certified teachers; they are not responsible for following individualized education programs, and do not have to accept children with disabilities. They do not have to teach state standards and often do not have to take end-of-year benchmarks to show student proficiency. These schools often do not have elected boards, but instead, answer to investors and private boards. These schools often profit from our children.
With the loss of even more funding, our small, rural schools are in danger of consolidating or even closing. When communities lose their schools, they lose their mascot and their teams. Children lose their teachers and can be bused for over an hour to reach their new school miles away. In the loss of rural schools, comes the loss of the economic epicenter of small towns.
School consolidations devastate small towns. Public schools are often the biggest employer in small towns. In my town, the school is one of the largest employers. Community members who work for the school district receive a paycheck and health insurance through the school, while disadvantaged children are fed through the school year through the free lunch program. School closures can damage small businesses and decrease property value. Our main streets often die with the loss of local schools.
When schools consolidate or close, our communities may never recover.
Jess Piper is a born and bred southerner, having spent childhood and young adulthood in several southern states until she landed in Arkansas. She graduated with A BA in English and an MA in Education from the University of Arkansas.
Jess is a fierce advocate for rural communities and public schools. She was an American Literature teacher for 16 years and decided to run for a House seat in Missouri’s 1st district in 2022. Although she lost the race, she continues her activism and is Executive Director of Blue Missouri and hosts a weekly podcast called “Dirt Road Democrat.”