Anyone who believed the ads in favor of Proposition B might expect the “no” vote to be devastating for Missouri schools. As Peter Venkman might say, it will lead to “human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together ... mass hysteria;” or in education terms: staff reductions and increased class sizes. Despite nearly every education agency in the state supporting the measure and copious amounts of ink filling opinion pages with support, Missourians voted to not increase tobacco taxes. So that begs the question, why do Missouri voters hate children?
The truth is, Missouri voters do not hate children, or even taxation for education. Take, for example, the results of Proposition S in Saint Louis County. Even though the property taxes for schools in the county are 50 percent higher than the average school property tax rate in the state, voters approved the 19 percent property tax increase with 59 percent of the vote.
Many Missourians simply did not believe that the increased revenue from the tobacco tax would actually go to education, and for good reason. Though the drafters of the legislation said the funds would be “in addition to” funds generated by the funding formula, they inserted a provision that allowed those funds to replace general revenue when the state could not fully fund their obligations to K-12 schools. As it turns out, that is exactly the position we are in right now. Missourians simply do not do not like taxes that unfairly target one population with dubious claims that they will benefit schools.
Proponents of Prop B claim big tobacco used scare tactics to garner opposition to the measure. In fact, the opposite was true, as advocates for the tax increase suggested the revenue generated would prevent teacher layoffs and increased class sizes. Those claims, of course, are not likely to come to fruition. However, if the state continues to underfund its obligations, the result is a massive lawsuit. Unless legislators want the courts to settle the issue of education funding, they need to have some serious discussions when they return to Jefferson City.
The debate about education funding will certainly be contentious and will pit rural, urban, and suburban legislators and school districts against each other. It could also be highly productive, allowing lawmakers to tackle some of the most pressing issues in K-12 education.
For instance, legislators could work out the kinks in the intra-district transfer bill so more students have access to high-quality schools.
They could improve transparency by ensuring the money follows the child to their school, not just to their district. This would ensure money designated for high-poverty or special needs students is actually spent on those kids and not at wealthier schools in the district.
Or, lawmakers could consider tax-credit scholarships or education savings accounts as a way to save money and ensure parents have more educational options for their kids.
To many, taxing smokers to fund education sounded like a good idea. In reality, Prop B would have done little to build a strong, sustainable education system, but it would have provided cover for legislators to avoid the tough discussions that are needed. It is possible the “no” vote was actually a blessing for education funding; it may force legislators to go to the state capital and do the difficult job that they have been elected to do.
James V. Shuls is the education policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.
Unless legislators want the courts to settle the issue of education funding, they need to have some serious discussions when they return to Jefferson City.