Even as Congress debates on whether to proceed with more than $4 billion in education funding cuts proposed this in year's federal budget bill, states across the U.S. continue to slash local education funding in the name of balancing struggling state budgets.
As mentioned in our latest MOMocrats MOMochat podcast on Blog Talk Radio, in Missouri, Governor Jay Nixon -- a Democrat -- recently proposed millions of dollars in cuts to state education funding, including $39 million in cuts to scholarships and financial aid for college students, a seven percent cut in general funding to state universities (which will result in the elimination of up to 116 degree programs), a $4 million cut to the Parents as Teachers early childhood education program, and a myriad of other cuts at every education level.
In the past month alone in Missouri, a cash-strapped rural district resorted to approving a four day school week, several others reported their boards are considering the same move. A school district in middle-class, suburban St. Charles cut 95 teaching and administrative jobs, gutting its gifted education program. Last year, the already struggling St. Louis City school district -- which lost its accreditation from the state board of education a few years ago due to poor performance, and has yet to regain it -- cut nearly 400 jobs in response to a funding shortfall.
In this tough economy, nearly every state in the nation has lost significant revenue due to a steep decline in income from sales and property taxes. And Missouri has not been spared -- if no changes are made to the state's current budget, Missouri could face a budget shortfall in 2012 of just over a billion dollars. So certainly, budget belt tightening seems necessary.
But, economically speaking, education is one of the worst areas for a state to make spending cuts during a financial crisis.
Cuts to school funding have an immediate negative economic impact on middle class families. High school graduates may find themselves suddenly unable to afford college. Parents with children in public preschools that shut down may have to pay for a private alternative. Parents of children with special needs may have to seek private services once schools cut early intervention programs. A full-time working parent may have to take a pay cut in exchange for shorter hours or pay out of pocket for child care if a school switches to a four-day week.
Parents who have to spend more money on childcare and educational services for their children have less money to spend on groceries, cars, homes, and the types of consumer transactions that drive a healthy economy. When high school graduates miss out on college, the state misses a chance to capitalize on the innovation and expertise well-trained workers bring to the job market.
But the long-term economic price of cuts in education spending is even costlier. Studies show quality public education programs provide a better return on investment than amost any other government program.
For example, a recent study by The National Institutes of Health that followed participants from infancy until age 26 found that early childhood education programs in Chicago produced a return of $4-$11 for every taxpayer dollar spent. Students who received a quality early education experience were less likely to need costly academic intervention in their later years, less likely to commit crimes, more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to go to college, and earned a higher income as adults than their peers with no access to early childhood education.
The Pew Center on the States has similarly found that early childhood education programs provide an average return on investment of $5.70 per dollar spent.
In other words, the cuts the state of Missouri makes to eary childhood education programs like Parents as Teachers today may eventually wind up costing the state more than five times the amount those cuts will temporarily save.
Which hardly sounds like logical fiscal planning.
But, don't fret, Missourians -- Republican State Senator Jane Cunningham has a plan to fix the pesky problem of what to do with an entire generation of kids who will be left ill-prepared for the economy of the futureby today's drastic cuts in education funding: She has a bill in the works to repeal most of Missouri's child labor laws, allowing children under 14 to work without a permit and without restrictions on their work hours.
After all, if a Missouri kid can legally get a full-time factory job at age seven, who needs school?
Photo Credit: Bibb Mill No. 1 Macon, Ga., 1909, by Lewis Hine