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Missourians want to pay teachers more but increasingly say public schools are poor

An empty first grade classroom on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, at Nance Elementary School in the North Pointe neighborhood of St. Louis.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
An empty first grade classroom on Aug. 21 at Nance Elementary School in the North Pointe neighborhood of St. Louis.

Missourians are increasingly saying public schools in the state are poor, according to a new poll from St. Louis University and YouGov.

The poll surveyed voters in August, asking a range of questions about both education and political issues. While the poll found growing discontent with public schools, it also found trust in teachers and support for increased educator salaries.

SLU and YouGov asked 900 likely Missouri voters to rate both their local public schools and public schools statewide. Since the poll was first conducted in summer of 2020, it has found an increasing percentage of likely voters rate schools either fair or poor.

“Missourians are rating public schools, both in the state of Missouri and our local community, more poorly,” said Steven Rogers, an associate professor of political science at SLU and the director of the poll.

Former St. Louis Public Schools board member and current 7th Ward Alderwoman Alisha Sonnier said she thinks the poll reflects dissatisfaction with the state of public funding for education in Missouri.

“Personally, it's very alarming to me anytime we are talking about the outcomes of something, but not talking about the factors and influences that are causing that outcome,” Sonnier said. “Especially in regards to public education that is obviously relying on public funds in a state like Missouri, where we are leading the way in underfunding public education.”

There is a small partisan divide in how Missourians view schools; Democrats are more likely to rate their schools as either fair or poor. Rogers said that could be because Republicans control both the governorship and the state legislature.

“When voters are kind of making assessments of their state institutions, a Democrat may be thinking, ‘Well, Gov. [Mike] Parson is in charge, and I'm not a fan of Gov. Parson, because I'm a Democrat,’” Rogers said. “And so in this, they may kind of take that opinion and translate it on to their public schools.”

While opinions about public schools are becoming more negative, Missourians still seem to have faith in teachers at those schools. About 80% of likely voters said public school teacher salaries should increase, and a slight majority said they had a “great deal” or “good amount” of trust in public school teachers.

“What we've largely found is that a majority of Missouri voters do have trust in their teachers,” Rogers said.

Confidence in institutions across the country, including public schools, has been declining in recent years, according to national polling from Gallup. Confidence in public schools is at an all-time low since the organization began tracking that in 1979.

Sonnier said state leaders should be looking for ways to equitably fund education to increase satisfaction with schools.

“The formula for education that we have that is funded by property taxes creates another system of segregation and classism, and it creates a situation of the haves and the have-nots,” Sonnier said. “And I think that's a truth that we should all begin to hold.”

The poll of Missouri voters is funded by SLU's Research Institute Big Ideas competition and PRiME Center, both of which have received money from organizations and individuals that also support charter school expansion initiatives, including the Walton Family Foundation, Rex Sinquefield and the Opportunity Trust.

“If you're doing a study on people's satisfaction with public education, but there are funders who have been strong advocates and voices for choice, I think that raises a lot of a lot of eyebrows and a lot of questions in a lot of places,” Sonnier said.

Rogers said the funding did not influence the polling process, which he said aims to provide objective information on public issues.

“I didn't have any conversations with Rex Sinquefield or the Walton Group prior to making this poll,” Rogers said. “Our funding sources are indirectly through them partly, they're also through St. Louis University more broadly.”

The poll also asked likely voters their views on charter schools. More than 50% said that charter schools should be allowed to operate in their own school district and that they should be allowed to operate in all areas of the state. Rogers said while this is a majority, there has been about a 10% drop in support for charter schools operating in all areas of the state.

The Opportunity Trust is a financial supporter of St. Louis Public Radio. STLPR is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations by members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in STLPR's journalism.

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.