Governor Eric Greitens failed this week in his latest attempt to sell out Missouri education – the State Board of Education voted 4-4 not to fire the highly regarded Commissioner of Education, Margie Vandeven. This is remarkable because Greitens hasn’t even tried to hide the fact that he has attempted to pack the board with puppets who will do his political bidding and clear the deck, allowing him to bring a charter and school privatization advocate in from out of state to lead Missouri schools.
Of course this most recent failure does not mean that Vandeven and Missouri’s public School system are home safe. What it has done, though, has allowed us to witness a nasty little temper tantrum from the boy Governor – who seems to take his behavioral cues from our emotionally unstable and truth-challenged President. Not only was the public statement he issued after the vote an exercise in puerile ranting, but he also got lots of his facts wrong, or at the very least, twisted.
Greitens’ diatribe seemed to have two foci: (1) He praises himself, asserting that he’s responsible for putting “more money into schools than ever before in Missouri history.” (Who does that sound like? Hint, starts with “T.”) (2) He accuses selfish and greedy administrators of grabbing all those extra goodies for themselves. Needless to say, this mix of self-glorification and spite needs to be taken with a grain of salt – make that a great big grain. Make that several great big grains.
Greitens is probably correct that Missouri spends about the national average on our schools. Education Week’s annual 2016 Quality Counts report ranks Missouri 31st in measures of K-12 financing. Although Greitens toured the state last spring asserting that his budget would increase K-12 spending by 4.1%, Politifact Missouri dug into the facts and put Greitens’ proposed increase at 0. 613%. Some difference, right? It’s not likely that Greitens’ K-12 spending has moved the state too far from its slightly less than mediocre position. Are you satisfied with mediocrity? Evidently Greitens is. Better yet, do you trust a politician who exaggerates and misleads about things like education funding?
As for Greitens’ claim that he and his fellow Republicans have funded K-12 education fully “for the first time in years,” wise folks will keep in mind that that feat was accomplished by changing the funding formula downwards to fit the funds rather than fitting the funds to the established formula. Kinda bass ackwards, as the old guys say.
Nor should we forget that increasing K-12 education at a time when revenues are not adequate to fund state obligations entails not funding other programs. Greitens and his GOP pals threw elementary schools a pittance while decimating higher education. Our colleges and universities still count as “education” last I heard – and as a resource do as much and likely more to foster economic growth in the state than the tax cuts for businesses that Greitens champions.
Finally, I don’t think that there’s much evidence that greedy administrators are really the problem with the resource-starved Missouri schools. A report formulated using data through 2014 showed Missouri spending per K-12 student to be $9,418. Out of that sum only $1024 financed school and general administration – the lion’s share went to instruction and instructional support. The per student expenditure has increased in 2016 to $10,689 , but I can find no evidence that school administrators – folks with major responsibility for making schools function well in hard times – have been wallowing in the trough of Greitens’ financial largess. Top administrative salaries, such as that received by Vandeven – a nationally recognized educator – seem to be in line with those in similar positions nationally.
Nor is it clear, as Greitens claims, that no teachers have or will receive raises – teachers salaries are negotiated within various school districts and owe as much to property taxes as to putative state windfalls. I’m sure I’ve read reports of districts where teachers will receive raises next year. Overall, teacher salaries have bumped up 3.9% over the last decade – inadequate, but better than nothing.
If this represents the reasoning Greitens is using to justify privatizing and, at the very least, deregulating (i.e. deunionizing) public education via “school choice ” and charters, we should be very worried. Charters have not shown themselves to be the cure-all their advocates claim. But wanna know what does work? Adequate resources targeted where needed. And that means resources that can be utilized to provide social support – stressed out kids living in abject poverty do not perform well in school without environmental intervention.
So what does this mean for Greitens? If he’s really interested in improving education he should stop playing politics with the board, forget about more rich-folks tax cuts, stop exaggerating grand funding gestures that don’t amount to much, and make sure we really and truly fund education to the extent needed. That indeed might be an historical first in the state, at least when viewed over the past few decades. But don’t hold your breath.
In education, as in other policy matters involving Republicans nowadays, we need to follow the money trail. Greitens has taken scads of campaign funds from Betsy DeVos – the least qualified Education Secretary probably ever – and other school-choice advocates, so we can probably forget about honest efforts to reform education and resign ourselves to three years of politicized DeVos style education reform. Greitens clearly takes his orders from his bosses. Unless the courts step in and save us from his high-handed efforts to impose political control over the Board of Education, we just have to hope that we can undo the harm these folks will do if given free rein.