LAKE OZARK – Gov. Jay Nixon is heading into the home stretch on his run as Missouri’s top elected official, but he vows he’s not taking a victory lap.
Nixon has been a positive influence on public education throughout his two terms as governor, and he is on a mission to turn back the Legislature’s efforts to significantly change the funding formula for K-12 schools – a change that would lower the target number for education to be considered “fully funded.”
On Wednesday, Nixon brought his message to an eager audience, the annual Spring Conference for the Missouri Association of School Administrators and the Missouri School Public Relations Association at Lodge of the Four Seasons. Noted for transparency: I serve on the MOSPRA board as the group’s Mid-State regional director.
The governor buttered up the crowd early, stating that Missouri schools are “making great progress.”
“Over the last year, Missouri’s graduation rate rose yet again, putting us in the top 10 in the nation while the number of students needing remediation declined,” Nixon said. He also reminded us there is $400 million more in the K-12 education formula now than when he became governor.
Nixon’s budget proposal for fiscal 2016-17 “ensures that education remains a top priority with an increase of $150 million – record funding – for our local public schools. That includes funding for the foundation formula, special education, transportation and struggling school districts. And for the first time, we will be funding early childhood education through the foundation formula, giving more than 2,500 kids access to high-quality preschool this year.”
But Republican lawmakers have a different plan for the K-12 funding formula. Nixon, a Democrat, warned that last week the state Senate passed SB586, which he characterized as part of the Legislature’s “repeated effort not to fund public education.” SB586 lowers the amount of funding called for in the state’s K-12 foundation formula, so it would require less state funding — $300 million less, Nixon said — to reach the “fully funded” target.
“By any measure it is a step backwards, and I cannot support it,” he said, arguing that the next governor and Legislature should not “get a passing grade for providing less funding.”
The Republicans’ plan does not reduce K-12 funding, it calls for a smaller increase than what Nixon designated in his budget proposal.
As reported by Claudette Riley in the Springfield News-Journal, in the 10 years the foundation formula has existed it has never been fully funded. She quoted Springfield school board member Bruce Renner as saying: “After this many years, there is no expectation that it will ever be close to being fully funded. It’s like hollow talk. It becomes one of those things where you feel like you’re beating your head against a wall.”
In his remarks, Nixon admitted the state’s record on funding the formula: “While we have not been able to get to fully funded, I certainly have not given up on that target.”
In essence, there are two schools of thought on the issue. Nixon contends the current formula sets a positive target for education funding and while his budget proposal does not get to the “fully funded” level, it takes the state closer to that destination. On the other side there is a belief that by lowering the target number, it will be more easily accessible and once the Legislature is able to say it is fully funding public education, it is more likely to continue providing the incremental increases that will be needed each year to maintain that status.
Nixon contends there should be more money available for schools, but “legislators are once again pushing forward another cavalcade of special interest tax breaks which would further undermine our ability to fund public education now and into the future.” The governor also hit on proposals to pay for transportation projects with general revenue funds, rather than through traditional user fees such as fuel taxes. He called those plans “dramatic and dangerous” since they add “another player in the pot for scarce resources.”
The governor vowed to finish his final year in Jefferson City with as much drive as he exhibited in his first 100 days in office. Fighting for his education funding plans will be a prime focus.
“We cannot lower that (funding formula) bar,” he said. “Cutting back on education funding … flies in the face of the message we are trying to send (to) our kids, that in a global economy, we must continue to raise the bar so they can be prepared for whatever the future brings.”
Bob Satnan is the communications director for Sedalia School District 200.