The looming danger to rural schools

By Jessica Piper

I am a born and bred rural woman. I am a subsistence farmer raising hogs and chickens in Northwest Missouri in a town of less than 500 people. I live in an old farmhouse on a few acres on the Iowa border between corn and bean fields. I was also an American Literature teacher for sixteen years and my children are all products of rural schools. Our youngest daughter is still in school. Her class, the entire fourth grade, consists of 16 children.

I am scared for the future of Missouri public schools.

The Missouri GOP supermajority has been defunding our public schools for over a decade, but the last five years have been at breakneck speed. Missouri is 49th in the nation for educational funding. The state only supplies 32% of the funding schools need to open their doors, turn on the lights, and pay teachers.

The rest of the funding comes from property taxes which sets up an incredibly inequitable system in which children access better-funded schools according to their zip code. But, there is even worse news. One in five Missouri schools is on a 4-day week due to the lack of funding. 20% of schools in our state lose an average of 85 academic hours per year even with an extended day. This short week can also be a nightmare for folks trying to find daycare one day per week, especially hitting women hard. Several Missouri mothers are forced to work around the day off as childcare is not easy to find in our small communities.

This 4-day schedule has now turned into a recruiting tool for keeping teachers in rural schools. Missouri ranks 45th in teacher pay and we are losing our best teachers to border states with higher salaries. My own son, a Special Education teacher, finished his teaching degree at Northwest Missouri State University and then crossed the state line into Iowa where teachers start anywhere from 8K-12K higher than in Missouri. He is Missouri proud but couldn’t afford to pay his rent on a Missouri teacher’s salary.

We are at a tipping point. Missouri Republican legislators have promised to defund public education even further. They passed a voucher scheme in 2021 that will basically allow Missourians to pay their taxes directly to private schools. There are also several Missouri legislators talking about “school choice”. That is a
misnomer–there is no choice in rural Missouri or anywhere except the cities and some suburbs. School choice implies that a school will open in my town of 480 people. That is not likely, and we are just left with defunded public schools in rural Missouri.

The public tax money previously allocated for public schools is now available to charter and private schools who are not accountable to the same standards that public schools must achieve. These schools do not have to employ certified teachers, they are not responsible for following individualized education programs, and do not have to accept disabled children. They do not have to teach state standards and often do not have to take end-of-year benchmarks to show student proficiency. These schools often do not have elected boards, but instead, answer to investors. These schools often profit from our children.

With the loss of even more funding, our small, rural schools are in danger of consolidating or even closing. When communities lose their schools, they lose their mascot and their teams. Children lose their teachers and can be bused for over an hour to reach their new school miles away. In the loss of rural schools, comes the loss of the economic epicenter of small towns.

Public schools are often the biggest employer in small towns. School consolidations devastate small towns. In my town, the school is one of the largest employers. Community members who work for the school district receive a paycheck and health insurance through the school, while disadvantaged children are fed through the school year through the free lunch program. School closures can damage small businesses and decrease property value. Our main streets often die with the loss of a local schools. When schools consolidate or close, our communities may never recover.

We must demand that Missouri legislators fully-fund public education. We can’t continue on this path without damaging our children and Missouri’s future. Defunding education is a purposeful act and it has to stop. Our children deserve more. Jessica Piper is a rural mom, teacher, and progressive Democrat running for State Representative in HD1–Atchison, Holt, Nodaway, and Worth counties.