Get facts on school funding

Thursday, February 26, 2004

By Rebecca McDowell Cook

A Feb. 18 column by Peter Kinder, Republican leader of the Missouri Senate, discussed funding for education in Missouri. The factual errors must be addressed. Kinder says elementary and secondary education had an appropriation of $4.5 billion in 2004. In fact, the foundation formula funding is the amount that actually goes to schools for students and instruction. That appropriation for 2004 was $2.5 billion. An overstatement of $2 billion doesn't bother Halliburton, but it is not acceptable in Missouri.

To get to a figure of $4.5 billion you would have to include Medicaid, vocational rehabilitation and a host of other programs that don't go to schools. This is probably what was done, as it is a tactic sometimes used to overstate the education budget. We recall that Catherine Hanaway, the Republican speaker of the Missouri House, recently said the education budget had increased by $186 million. This is the amount of federal money earmarked for special programs such as the First Steps Program for disabled infants and the Personal Care Assistance and Vocational Rehabilitation Program for disabled adults. These programs are run through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, but they don't go to schools.

Kinder said in his column that the education budget increased by over $2 billion in the past five years. In fact, the foundation formula increased by $561 million over five years. Even if you include Medicaid, vocational rehab and the other non-school items, the increase is $889 million. It is improper to misstate facts. My facts and figures came from the state budget director. Kinder is welcome to call her to check.

The budget is complicated and lends itself to misleading uses of statistics. To be honest with people about choices made in Jefferson City, we should discuss state, not federal, funding for the foundation formula. When we discuss other education-related programs, we should call them by their names and identify whether the money is state or federal. The basic state aid to schools, reflected in the appropriation for the foundation formula, was $2.645 billion in 2003 and $2.529 billion in 2004, a reduction of $115.8 million. This was a cut made by the legislature, not by any other group.

Another interesting but misleading feature of the education debate is the question of whether the governor needed to withhold $118 million from the education budget. Kinder says the governor should not have withheld it. The issue here concerns balancing the budget. The legislature appropriated more program money than it raised revenue to pay for -- shades of the federal budget. In Washington, when Congress does that it just goes ahead and spends the money anyway and adds to the deficit. However, there is a constitutional requirement in Missouri that the budget must be balanced. Therefore, if the revenue isn't there, the governor must not spend what is appropriated. So the legislature can say it is putting an item in the budget, but if the revenue to support it isn't there, it can't be spent.

The Republican leadership insists that revenue will grow as the economy rebounds and that the money should be released now, relying on that hope. The governor says we must see the money before spending it. Regardless of which method you use in your own finances, this question only obscures the cuts made in the foundation formula by the legislature. If revenue does increase and the $118 million in withholding is released, we will still be $115 million down from 2003 to 2004.

This debate will be improved if we start defining our terms so we are talking about the same things. It also will help to use our common sense. Gov. Mel Carnahan was roundly criticized by the Republicans for pushing through Senate Bill 380 in 1993, which increased education funding. Gov. Bob Holden has consistently pushed for higher education funding. These two Democratic governors made education their top priority. It seems unlikely that Holden would be withholding money from education if he had another choice.

If Kinder and Hanaway think we should continue education funding at the $115.8 million lower level, they should say so and make their case. But they should not act like they are the folks looking for more money for education. Only the legislature can raise revenue. There are tax loopholes for corporations that can be closed. There are yacht tax breaks that can be rescinded. There are $20,000 televisions sets for the Senate that can be sold in a Capitol Hill yard sale. If the legislature chooses to stay with the cuts, then so be it. But they should not deny what they have done to the foundation formula.

Rebecca McDowell Cook of Cape Girardeau is a former Missouri secretary of state.

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