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Education divides primary candidates

Education divides primary candidates

July 15th, 2018 by Bob Watson and Joe Gamm in Local News

The Missouri Constitution requires lawmakers to devote at least 25 percent of the state's budget to public education. And while the General Assembly has met the requirement, candidates are divided on whether funding is sufficient and on what are the best places to focus educational funding.

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The News Tribune has surveyed 13 candidates seeking to represent Missouri's 6th Senate District and the House's 59th and 60th districts to find out where they stand on education and what, if any, further funding it may need.

Three Democrats, Bryan Struebig, Nicole Thompson and Mollie Freebairn want to fill the Senate seat, which was vacated when Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, was selected to become lieutenant governor.

After eight years in office, term limits prevented Kehoe from running for re-election, anyway.

Current Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, is the only Republican seeking Kehoe's old seat, and Libertarian Steve Wilson also is running unopposed in the Aug. 7 primary election for the 6th District seat. So Bernskoetter and Wilson weren't interviewed for this story.

Linda Greeson, D-Eldon, was also not surveyed. She is running unopposed for her party's nomination for the District 59 position that Bernskoetter is leaving.

Five Republicans want to replace him. They are Rik Combs, Randy Dinwiddie, Kendra Lane, Karen Leydens and Rudy Veit.

Lane's work schedule didn't allow her to answer the survey questions or do an interview for this story.

Three Republicans — Jane Beetem, Dave Griffith and Pat Rowe Kerr — and two Democrats, Sara Michael and Kevin Nelson — are running for the District 60 seat. They look to fill the position vacated by Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, who also reached his eight-year term limit.

Teachers and funding

The candidates differ widely on their views of education, but what they mostly agree on is that teachers are underpaid.

Griffith said that for the past two years, the General Assembly has provided "record funding" for schools, including fully funding the Foundation Formula (the basis for public education funding in Missouri). Using attendance figures, adequacy of education, costs of living in communities and how much local taxes can contribute to education. The formula is considered a minimum amount of money the state needs to pay to ensure each child receives an appropriate education.

The formula can be confusing for a layman, Michael said. It's complicated, but well thought-out.

"It's objective, which is not a bad thing," she said. "All corners of the state are different. If there isn't a significant level of objectivity when determining how the money is going to be used, that's dangerous. Those without a strong voice are left without."

Legislators assumed more money would be flowing into schools based on revenue created by casinos, according to Nelson. That "skewed" revenue expectations. The Jefferson City man said education has not been — and is not — funded adequately.

"Tax cuts were misguided in anticipation of casino funds," he said. "We've been unable to fill that gap."

Dinwiddie pointed out that to be the best students, our children need to have the best teachers. Teachers are underpaid and classes are too large to begin with. And the teachers Missouri has could benefit from ongoing training.

Griffith said despite the record funding he pointed out, teacher salaries need to be increased.

"We have many dedicated and hardworking teachers and staff; however, after only five years, many new teachers leave to pursue more profitable careers," Griffith said. "We need to look at ways to increase teacher pay for those dedicated individuals who are making a daily difference in our children's lives. We should look to reduce class size so teachers can give each student the attention they need."

There are great schools in the Jefferson City area, Kerr said. But cuts combined with bureaucracy have made it difficult for them to remain at the top.

"We have to make sure that the policies we adopt focus on fixing troubled schools without imposing needless bureaucrat-mandated burdens on those that are performing well," she said.

There may never be enough funding to reach every child, Beetem said. So lawmakers and school boards have to make the best of what they have. She said legislators have done their job by designating 26 percent of the state's budget for education (about 22 percent for elementary and secondary and about 4 percent for higher education).

"Try being in a classroom with 25 or 30 students," Beetem said. "They are a teacher, social worker and psychotherapist. And it seems like they do it with less and less money."

Veit said current education funding may not be adequate, but, "To start with, I don't believe that merely throwing money at something solves the problem."

He's visited with the superintendents of the area's public school districts, as well as the principals of the parochial schools, "and I understand their needs. Our local systems are very good systems, and they would be models for other states to go by."

He thinks schools need to do more to analyze themselves and to help teach the students who are having trouble learning.

Combs' priority is local — not state — control of schools.

"As school systems vary widely from one district or region in the state to another, I would have to venture some school districts are funded very well while others are having a difficult time," he said. "Being a proponent of local control, I think the local communities need to set their tax bases for their schools and operate within their means."

He acknowledged some rural districts may be having a tougher time financially than schools in more urban areas.

"It's ultimately a local decision," Combs said. "I don't think the state needs to step in more than they're doing currently."

Candidates expressed concerns about state and federal influences on local school systems.

"Just how much input does a community school need from both the federal and state level?" she asked. "With more local control, schools can gear their curriculum toward what is needed in their areas."

Struebig said the state isn't providing adequate funding for education — but, facing an estimated $500 million budget shortfall compared with previous years, the state first needs to "figure out how we're going to fund our state government" before it can tackle the education issue.

The school aid formula was changed in 1993, after a lawsuit was filed challenging the state's public aid distribution, and he said, another lawsuit prompted the 2005 changes.

Allowing sports betting, imposing taxes on internet sales and allowing — and taxing — recreational marijuana sales all are ideas that could raise more state income, he said.

Thompson said Missouri is not funding public schools adequately.

"Missouri schools rely more heavily on local funding sources than most other states," she said. "Since local funding is primarily from property taxes, this system of funding our schools hurts farmers and makes it difficult for schools in rural, agricultural areas to support themselves."

She grew up in Johnson County and attended a rural school district.

"(We) had very low-paid teachers, so it would largely be a training ground for new teachers," Thompson noted. "They would be there a year or two, and then they'd move on to a better-paying school."

Still, she said, "Our public schools have been doing more with less for years, and in light of this, our individual school districts are doing surprisingly well."

Freebairn noted the state aid formula for elementary and secondary schools provides money statewide using the same basic criteria — but local school districts also run with property tax-based local funding.

"The less adequate the local funding is, the less the schools really get what they need," she said.

And, after years of the state not putting as much money into the aid formula as it required, Freebairn said, "How we're going to play catch-up is going to (need) a really comprehensive approach."

Several candidates pointed out the state reached an agreement to provide the same money for colleges this year as last year, if the schools capped tuition increases at 1 percent.

Missouri Southern in Joplin was the only state university that did not agree to the deal.

The deal was made after then-Gov. Eric Greitens this year proposed a budget that slashed $68 million from last year's higher education funding levels.

Higher education has other sources of revenue, Michael said. It receives money from tuition, research grants and alumni donations.

Higher ed and the economy

"Deep, sustained cuts to lower and higher education have significantly impacted our children and economy," Michael said.

She said a major threat to primary and secondary education lies in some school choices funding of vouchers and charter schools.

People mistakenly believe that negative affects of the vouchers and charter schools would be felt in the largest of the state's school districts in St. Louis and Kansas City, she said. However, redirecting funds to private schools would hurt rural or overcrowded districts that don't have room in their "over-extended budgets" for additional cuts.

Lincoln University is a jewel that has not received the kind of funding it should have for several years, Griffith said. Lawmakers need to work with Lincoln leaders to find the funding it needs, he said. Because it is a historically black college, it has access to federal grants other universities may not. Also, professors and alumni should take a lead in raising money for the college.

Universities, in general, should focus on using donor dollars and gifts to increase educational benefits for their students, Kerr said. They need to generate curricula that create marketable skill sets, she said.

A concern stemming from higher education, according to Dinwiddie, is the debt it creates for students, some of whom change their minds about what they want to do once they begin their college careers. He said many are too young or immature to make those decisions that may affect them for the rest of their lives.

"What if they go to college, then suddenly find out this is not who they are?" he asked.

They make a decision that they are unsure of and change their minds then they suddenly find themselves $40,000 in debt.

"Not every child was meant to go to college," Griffith said. "One of the things we've found in surveys we've done is that we just don't have the skilled workforce."

It is a shortcoming in the state right now that could prevent companies from choosing to come to Missouri. He said there are "boxes" the companies check off — such as whether it's a right-to-work state, whether the company can get supplies in and products out and whether there's a skilled workforce.

"We need to stop selling every child that they have to go to college to get a good job," Dinwiddie said. "We have to stop saying that education is the be all and end all."

Combs agreed.

"It's a level of education and, I think, it's a level of information that the state can put out" to help students better understand their learning opportunities, he said. "There are a lot of jobs out there. I think, over the past 40-50 years, we as a society have encouraged these young people that everybody has to go to college.

"And there are a lot of jobs out there that are going unfilled in the trade sectors."

Veit said higher education needs students to make a bigger commitment to their own education.

"An important tool we have in higher education is the (high school) A-Plus Program," he explained. "It is effective in providing opportunity to students, while requiring they show a commitment to their own education in order to take advantage of the benefit provided by Missouri taxpayers."

Struebig said Missouri's colleges and universities should "fully embrace online degrees. It would help lower their overhead costs."

Thompson said the state needs to have a more integrated funding system for all schools.

"All of that working together (would be) making sure that everyone in the state has the education that maximizes them on their potential path and allows them the most benefit," she said. "That whole system has to work together."

Missouri's colleges and universities face a special problem, Thompson added.

"We're seeing a lot of tuition increase and university education becoming more unaffordable for a lot of people," she said. "If we don't fix our school funding issues, we will begin to see the quality of education decline in our state, leading to decreased opportunity and businesses leaving for other areas with a better educated workforce."

Freebairn agreed colleges and universities face a money problem.

"The cost of a college education has sky-rocketed, and debt-ridden college graduates face decades of paying off student loans," she said.

And that's especially hard on teachers, whose pay "is so low many of them must work a second job" to support their families and have enough money to afford to "pay out of their own pockets for essential needs for their students" when the school budget can't cover those extra costs.

Preparing future workers

Not everybody is ready for the workforce, Leydens said. So more trade schools could help prepare people for better-paying jobs.

And she said school curricula must focus on filling future job needs.

"I think we need to recognize that not everybody needs to go to college anymore," Beetem said. "Two years in Linn (State Technical College) can get somebody a good job. They may not know Greek mythology, but that's not going to help them in their everyday lives."

Employers are having difficulties finding workers for technical jobs, she said.

There's nothing wrong with a person getting their hands dirty, Kerr said. And companies should be working with high schools to begin encouraging students to consider training for technical jobs. People in those jobs don't go into debt during training and they come away with skills they can use for the rest of their lives.

"If anything, we need to better fund technical schools to train our workforce in the manufacturing sector," Dinwiddie said.

He said we can, in a sense, predict the future in terms of some jobs — that because of President Donald Trump's tariffs on Chinese goods, specific products will have shortages. Create a list of the items that are going to face tariffs and begin preparing to manufacture them, he said.

"We contact every high school," Dinwiddie said. "We have the workforce ready whenever these tariffs hit."

Dinwiddie said investors need to be prepared to create the jobs that will be necessary to fill gaps, otherwise "we're going to have huge problems on our hands when these tariffs hit."

Missouri could be the first state in the union to begin preparing for this "opportunity," he said. It can produce the workforce that can start to produce these things.

Veit said more schools should emphasize extracurricular groups like 4-H and FFA.

"We need our schools to start thinking, at a very early age, telling kids of the opportunities that are out there," he said. "When you look at the markets where there are jobs, there are many of them.

"Every area that I encounter, people are short of skilled workers (and) we need to start working with our kids at an early age, that they develop an interest in fields that there are jobs."

Combs said there's a clear need for more students to choose jobs that don't require a college education — and State Technical College in Linn "is a fantastic resource."

He said most schools' "faculty and staff are motivated and doing the best they can" in helping guide students toward a variety of careers.

Parental involvement helps students make those decisions, Combs said, and "in Cole County (it's) extremely good" — but he doesn't know how well that's happening across the state.

"I think that with our individual school systems, the product's pretty good that they're putting out," Combs said. "But we need that local control, so that school systems have that variety and the flexibility to train (students) and to educate as the need requires."

Struebig said "our schools are doing a good job preparing our children for college — but that is not the path for every student. It is time to stop demonizing vocational work."

More high schools need to have more "emphasis on different vocational training opportunities that are out there," he said.

Thompson thinks more high schools — especially in rural areas — should give students opportunities to explore careers that don't need a college education.

"I went to the university undecided on my major, and had no idea what I was going to do," she said. "It goes back to funding.

"When (education) is not funded properly, it puts more strain on employers to do in-house training programs — and that can set them behind."

Freebairn said educators should do more to provide students with a variety of career choices.

"I think there's plenty of room for both the more academic institutions and vocational institutions, depending on what young people feel is the kind of career they want to go into," she said. "They need to have the tools to make this world a better place than they found it, for future generations."


This article was edited Monday, July 16, to correct the spelling of Bryan Struebig's first name.