Thursday, November 20, 2014

Refections from (not) a War Zone

There is a problem in North St. Louis County and it has little to do with race, regardless of what you’ve seen on television. In 1970 I began my academic career at Elm Grove School in the Hazelwood School District.  At that time Hazelwood was, and remains, the second largest school district in the state of Missouri.  I received a good education. Hazelwood was booming at the time, building two new high schools and was one of the highest rated school districts in the state. Fast forward and times have changed. It is still a booming school district, recently two new middle schools were established and student enrollment has remained high. But, academically Hazelwood has suffered. The problem is not the students, the problem is the declining economy of North St. Louis County. When I attended Hazelwood there were plenty of jobs and plenty of tax dollars to go around. McDonnell-Douglas Corporation was huge, the Ford Motor Plant at I-270 and Lindbergh was up and running, Lambert International Airport was the hub for TWA and various factories, like Hussmann Refrigeration gave good wages to the citizens of the area.
But this did not come with a price.  At the same time North County was booming, the city of St. Louis lost a full thirty percent of its population. The lure of the suburbs, especially with good paying jobs, was too much to resist. The problems presented to those left behind included dwindling property values, which in turn lead to lower tax assessments resulting in fewer funds to pay for public education. This was exacerbated by the fact that lower property values incentivized government agencies to concentrate subsidized housing in these areas which created a vacuum of tax dollars. This is simple logic:  If the public schools are funded locally by tax dollars and the tax dollars are not collected due to low income, then the public schools will suffer and, in turn, the students will suffer.
The facts are as follows:  Roughly ten percent of school funding comes from Federal Sources, such as Title I, Reading First and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Approximately thirty percent comes from the state of Missouri with 84% of that coming from general revenue and the rest from gaming, lottery, etc. That leaves almost 60% to be funded locally. In a suit filed in 2009, half of the public school districts in the state of Missouri alleged that the formula for education was unequal. In fact, “An education finance expert testified on Plaintiffs' behalf that Missouri's school finance system was "one of the most disparate systems in existence in the United States" because SB287's funding formula placed a greater financial burden on local school districts by increasing their responsibility for funding public schools.”

According to the Missouri Supreme Court website:
“At trial, Plaintiffs presented evidence of alleged inadequacy through "focus district" plaintiff schools, whose funding under SB287's formula failed to meet the required "state adequacy target." Plaintiffs stressed that the alleged inadequacy of school funding in Missouri most impacts Missouri's high-risk children, such as those living in poverty and those with special needs. They also highlighted the spending disparities among Missouri's school districts, with per-pupil spending ranging from $4,704.11 in the Diamond R-IV School District to $15,251.28 in the Gorin R-III School District. And they noted the differences among the tax bases in Missouri's school districts, with assessed valuation per eligible pupil in the 2004-2005 school year ranging from $19,605 in the Cooter R-IV School District to $416,679 in the Clayton School District.”

If education is the means of delivering young people from the grip of poverty and welfare, then don’t we owe it to them to change the laws and make the funding of public education more equitable? I once heard someone say that criminologists recognize kids in the ghetto are at greater risk for crime because they lack the imagination to even realize there can be more to life than dealing drugs on the street corner. This was echoed in an article I read on NPR where a convict discussed how life changing prison turned out to be because he was introduced to the Liberal Arts and his mind was able to expand and realize the world is vastly more than a street corner and a gun.

If we truly want to address the situation in Ferguson, and in rural Missouri for that matter, we need to look at a more just and equitable way to fund public education. It’s just that simple.