Think tank distills Missouri’s $10B education budget into 48-page report

(The Center Square) – More than a thousand pages are submitted during the Missouri legislative session on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s $10 billion budget.

Susan Pendergrass, director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute, spent more than a year reviewing documents, charts and spreadsheets and distilled it to 48 pages.

“It’s a complicated paper to read, but that’s kind of my point,” Pendergrass said in an interview with The Center Square.

The report, titled “State and Federal Funding for Public Education in Missouri 2023: Where does it come from and where does it go?” was published earlier this week. Earlier this year, the Show-Me Institute launched an interactive website to track academic performance and finances of all if Missouri’s public schools.

Mallory McGowin, DESE chief communications officer, said she didn’t know if the organization received the report or reviewed it.

“After a quick review of the (document’s) conclusion you pointed me to, I think the author’s comment that this perspective is ‘highly oversimplified’ is accurate,” McGowin said in an email to The Center Square, referring to the report’s conclusion text. “DESE always welcomes questions from stakeholders and supports public accountability for taxpayer dollars.”

Pendergrass simplified the financial perspective by viewing a public school district’s spending in the context of a single classroom.

“Let’s just say the average spending per student is $12,000 and you have a classroom of 20 kids,” Pendergrass said. “That’s $240,000 and the teacher gets paid $60,000 and maybe a total of $90,000 with benefits. So where does the other $150,000 go?”

DESE’s budget is reviewed and passed by the legislature, but Pendergrass said the length of her distillation shows the size of the organization makes it unmanageable. As an example, Pendergrass said DESE will spend $500,000 for a quality assurance review of the $35 million childhood development program.

“I think it’s too much for any group to keep track of,” Pendergrass said. “These programs grow and you need more people working at DESE. It’s a lot of money and I just don’t think anyone’s keeping track of it.”

Pendergrass said state and local governments attempted to equalize educational resources and opportunities in geographic areas throughout the decades by funding various programs.

“But we haven’t reduced our achievement gaps in decades and they’ve widened a little bit,” Pendergrass said. “All of this money, effort and formulas haven’t helped us with those gaps and now we have this behemoth of a system and money going a hundred different directions. It’s not serving its purpose. So should we continue to do it this way?”

In addition to regular funding, $3 billion in federal pandemic money flowed through DESE to school districts during the last two years.

“And I’ve been saying this for three years now: 10 years after the pandemic, we’re going to be asking ourselves, Where did all that money go?” Pendergrass said. “And if we are still having learning loss and more problems, what happened to the billions of dollars that flowed through the system?”

Pendergrass acknowledged the pressure on legislators to spend more on education. However, she said no one is discussing projected declining student enrollment throughout the state.

“Missouri has declining enrollment and it’s expected to decline another 10% in the next five years,” Pendergrass said. “But there’s this push to spend more and no one can tell you how we’re spending. This is an effort to say we found out where it’s going, but we shouldn’t be the ones who had to work to find this out. It should be transparent and easy for anyone to understand.”

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