Editorial: Early childhood education takes backseat to corporate tax cuts in Missouri

School superintendents are leery of expanding pre-K education when more budget cuts could be in the offing.
School superintendents are leery of expanding pre-K education when more budget cuts could be in the offing. along@kcstar.com

When Missouri lawmakers decided this year to fully fund public schools for the first time in years, the decision came with an added bit of good news.

A 2014 law requires that when the schools reach full funding, an extra pot of money becomes available the next year to help districts fund their pre-kindergarten programs. That’s a good thing because hardly anyone disagrees with the value of early childhood education.

Efforts to expand early childhood schooling have taken a backseat for way too long. But as is typical with Missouri, there’s a giant asterisk. Not all superintendents embrace the development as a new day for pre-K education, the Associated Press reports. There’s good reason for that.

Many school leaders are rightly worried that if they expand their early childhood programs, another state fiscal crisis will unfold, resulting in cuts to school funding. Superintendents say they can’t count on the General Assembly to continue the steady funding stream needed to finance pre-K education long term.

“It’s all about sustainability,” said Paula Knight, an associate superintendent in St. Louis Public Schools.

You can hardly blame school officials for being jumpy. This year’s decision to fully fund education for the first time in history took place only after a group of state senators revolted against leadership and tossed another $45 million at education near the session’s end. And “fully funding” education doesn’t mean what it used to. Lawmakers reached the target of $3.4 billion for schools only because they lowered the threshold last year for what “fully funded” means. It wasn’t because lawmakers found lots more money to spend on schools.

This year, Gov. Eric Greitens launched his administration by making budget cuts to offset lower-than-expected revenues, and school transportation budgets were chopped. Combine that cut with the lower benchmark for full school funding, and many superintendents have said they will simply shift costs around to cover shortfalls rather than expand pre-K education.

One other concern on the minds of school leaders is a massive drop in state corporate income tax revenue as a result of 2015 legislation. The law, which changed the way multi-state corporations allocate their profits, was a contributing factor — and maybe a significant one — in a $155 million drop in corporate income tax revenue between fiscal 2015 and 2016.

The cut, Greitens has said, begins to explain “the mess we’re in.” Those corporate tax cuts, originally expected to cost $15 million a year, loom over the entire budget.

The result is clear: Missouri has favored corporate tax cuts over valuable programs, such as early childhood education. Our kids are the worse for it.