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Lena I. Jackson
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Schools across the U.S. are getting some much-needed upgrades from the COVID relief package known as the American Rescue Plan. That's true in Missouri, where the state legislature decided how to allocate the federal money just weeks before it was set to expire. But experts say fixing systemic funding gaps in the public education system will require long-term investment. Gabrielle Hays reports.
Schools across the country are getting much-needed upgrades thanks to the COVID relief package known as the American Rescue Plan.
That's true in Missouri, where the state legislature decided how to allocate the federal money just weeks before it was set to expire.
But experts say fixing systemic funding gaps in public education will require long-term, sustained investment communities.
Correspondent Gabrielle Hays has more from St. Louis.
Fourth-grader David Oliverires is one of 225 students at Pierre Laclede Junior Career Academy, a pre-K-through-seventh-grade school on St. Louis' West Side.
Soon, the classrooms he and his teacher work in the halls, they walk down will see new paint, an improvement his dad, Cory Oliverires, says is long overdue.
Cory Oliverires, Parent:
Funds don't seem to be or appearing to be equally disbursed throughout the St. Louis area. I mean, you can just look at our schools. Look at the schools on this side of town. Look at the schools on the other side of town.
Missouri schools, like many across the country, heavily rely on local funding sources such as property taxes to fund public education.
In neighborhoods where property values are lower, often communities of color, schools like Laclede may not get as much funding as those in wealthier neighborhoods. Missouri also ranks 49th in the nation when it comes to state funding for education, according to a state auditor report from 2021.
That lack of funding also extends to teacher pay. Missouri is home to the lowest base salaries for teachers across the country at $25,000 a year.
However, both the state and St. Louis public schools have recently approved increases to base salaries that Oliverires says were desperately needed.
These teachers are here. The teachers are very talented. They're not getting paid for what they're putting in.
I get emotional because I know how it is to be behind. It's a struggle to get caught up.
Kimberly Norwood is a professor at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. She says Missouri's lack of education funding has historical roots.
Kimberly Norwood, Washington University in St. Louis School of Law: Missouri became a state in 1821. And, shortly thereafter, the state enacted anti-literacy laws that prevented Blacks, whether free or enslaved, from reading or writing.
Though slavery was abolished in 1865, the Supreme Court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson upheld state segregation laws decades later. Norwood says that the ruling's separate but equal doctrine meant schools were never really equal.
So, those Black schools end up being overcrowded. They didn't have the resources. They weren't given the money. The teachers weren't paid the same.
Nearly 60 years later, the landmark civil rights case Brown vs. Board of Education overturned the Plessy decision.
Missouri begins a process to end segregated schools. We haven't gotten there yet. So it's 2022.
For Norwood, Missouri's current funding model exacerbates the problem.
The amount of money that you get for education is going to depend on how much the property values are in your district. So it's a property-rich, property-poor scenario.
Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge, Missouri State Board of Education: It solidifies the cycle of poverty.
Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge is a member of the Missouri Board of Education. And after spending years working in education and finance, she says the current funding model can have an impact on economic mobility.
Because my housing values are low, I don't have the educational outcomes that perhaps I should. I'm not as prepared. And so what are my career opportunities? Am I likely to go to college?
Back at Laclede, principal DaMaris White said her students are still working through barriers the pandemic made worse.
DaMaris White, Principal, Pierre Laclede Junior Career Academy:
It's like now we have to catch up to where they are. So, in order to do that, it takes funding. We cannot educate our children the way that they need to be educated without funding.
Missouri now has an unprecedented $2 billion in COVID relief funds that will, for the most part, directly to schools. But after decades of underfunding, districts are now trying to figure out how best to use that money and how to fill in gaps that existed before the pandemic even started.
Schools are using the money to help with everything, from addressing learning loss to hiring mental health counselors. St. Louis Public Schools received $103 million and used what they call an equity index to distribute the funds. That process reviews things like total enrollment and the number of students on free and reduced lunch.
Laclede is using the money to update their library and cafeteria, among other much-needed improvements.
New furniture in some of the classrooms, more field trips, more field experiences for our students as well.
Students now have iPads, and their teachers stay late for new after-school programs, all things they didn't have before, all things Principal White says the extra COVID relief money made possible.
To be able to have a STEM lab, after-school programming for reading and math and those interventions, and to have small group and one-on-one with the teachers has been — it's just been great.
While the COVID relief funds are a boon, that money, says Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge, is just a temporary fix to a structural problem.
I think we keep putting Band-Aids on the surface wounds that we see. But systems thinking says keep peeling back the layers to understand root cause.
And so that's why addressing resourcing flows structurally to make them more equitable, to send more dollars in where they're needed on a sustained basis is needed.
For Professor Norwood, the question of equity is key.
Why do you think that this issue continues to linger?
I think we talk that talk about equity and equality, but we don't really mean it. And if it's not good enough for your kid, it shouldn't be good enough for mine.
For Mr. Oliverires, who's put four kids through St. Louis public schools, the future of education is personal.
I had a child that came here that I had to resign from a job because of behavior problems. They were so bad that I was here three or four times a week. Had I not, I don't know where this child would be right now.
Today, his son David has dreams of being a movie star and a basketball player, and his daughter's Tori's (ph) outlook on her future has changed.
With the help of the staff here, we were able to get her through school, through elementary school. She's now interested in college. she's made a turnaround. Without the staff here, it wouldn't have happened.
It is those dreams Mr. Oliverires says that fuel his passion for advocating for students and making sure they have the tools they need to be who they want to be.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Gabrielle Hays in St. Louis.
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Gabrielle Hays is a Communities Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour out of St. Louis.
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