When we were kids, our parents used to say things that seemed strange, but made sense after a little thought. For instance, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” Of course it doesn’t. You don’t have to tell a kid that; it’s obvious. Nevertheless, some people still fail to completely grasp this lesson. As we grow older, we realize the importance in our own lives of spending less than we make. We know that we must make decisions to balance our budgets, and that if we spend more on one thing we have to spend less on another. Yet somehow, when we move from talking about personal finance to state finances this lesson goes out the window. We know money doesn’t grow on trees, but we sometimes treat it as if it should.
For years, educators and some lawmakers in the state have railed against the legislature for failing to fully fund the foundation formula for K-12 public schools. Last year, one lawmaker said her colleagues “refuse” to fund the formula. While lawmakers could choose to fully fund the formula, they aren’t simply deciding to withhold money without reason. Those dollars have to come from somewhere, which means less funding for other programs.
Indeed, this year lawmakers have passed a budget that increases aid for the foundation formula by $45 million, to a total of $3.4 billion. For the first time since the new formula was enacted in 2006, lawmakers will fully fund the formula.
Did they find that elusive money tree? No, of course not. They simply took the money from somewhere else (and they wisely reinstated a cap to growth of the foundation formula target amount)
One place hit hard by this reallocation of funds was higher education. As a result, higher education administrators are making cuts and laying off staff. (Full disclosure: I am a professor at UMSL which has been negatively impacted by the budget cuts).
State lawmakers have done exactly what you and I do when the budget is tight: shift funds from one thing to another. This will always happen as different administrations prioritize one thing over another. The only way to reduce the need to shift money around is to increase the amount of money available by growing the economy. To do this, policymakers should refer to the Show-Me Institute’s 20 for 2020 policy proposals. We’re far more likely to find new revenue for schools through sensible policy reform than by looking for it on trees.