The fight for public education in Missouri


A longtime school official sees a fight coming as public education remains in the crosshairs of the Missouri state legislature.

Dr. Christopher Berger, an educator for 27 years and a superintendent for 21, has seen a number of changes in public education since his first day as a teacher in Hollister.

“What’s changed is a more overt attack on public schools,” he said. “And that overt attack is at both the federal and state level and it’s just eroded the confidence in public schools.”

Berger, the outgoing Wright City R-II superintendent, sat down with The Record to discuss the state of public education and how that will affect Warren County students in the future.

“The overarching challenge is really the effort to privatize public education,” Berger said. 

There are roughly 900,000 students in Missouri attending public schools, and public school districts are responsible for their education.

“Every student in the district is our responsibility. Every student,” Berger said.

The district is even responsible for paying for services if it can’t provide education for that student.

“Obviously, we are motivated to keep all those kids under our roof,” Berger said. “When you’re talking about privatizing education, you’re talking about taking public dollars to a private entity. And that comes in a variety of ways, a variety of schemes.”

Those include vouchers for charter schools and education savings accounts.

Berger said that doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem – if the private school is willing to take all kids and be held to the same accountability standards as public schools.

“But then it wouldn’t be a private school,” Berger said. “Then it’s a public school and that’s what we are. And we’re fundamental to this country and this idea that a private entity can do it better is just a fallacy. Because no private entity can absolutely do it better if you don’t have to score them, if they don’t have the accountability standards and if they can pick and choose the students they want. Obviously, that’s not a public school.”

Less state money,  more local money

And because of the push to privatize education, the state has forced local entities to pick up more of the cost of public schools. And that’s led to vast differences in what individual school districts are able to do.

“That’s one element creating this distrust within schools,” Berger said. “When a state relies on local dollars versus state funding, the biggest consequence of that is inequity across the state.”

Some Missouri districts, for example, have a per-pupil expenditure of $15,000 a year. Others see that number at only $7,500.

“So it’s almost double is the disparity in Missouri of what public schools are and how public schools are supporting students,” Berger said. “And that disparity is a direct consequence of local funding.”

The disparity comes because of the assessed valuation of property in the school district. Districts within cities, which have more homes and businesses, have more assessed value. Rural districts, filled with more agricultural land, have less.

And there’s nothing from the state to fill in that gap for more rural districts.

“If the state doesn’t level that playing field, that’s going to create that inequity,” Berger said.

A need for assessments to be current

Keeping up with assessed values, too, plays a massive role in how much local districts have to spend.

In Warren County, for instance, assessed valuations went up 8 percent in 2023 but Assessor Katie Smith said at the time that assessed valuation was still 30 percent behind where it should be.

That issue isn’t limited to just Warren County with several other counties seeing their assessed valuation far behind where it should be.

“Assessors are compelled to keep values down, keep them depressed,” Berger said. “And who does that hurt? It hurts the taxing entities.”

Open enrollment  back on the table

In addition to the lack of state money, public school districts are facing the threat of open enrollment again.

The Missouri House has given its support to a bill that would allow students to leave their local school to enroll in districts that opt into the open enrollment, according to the Missouri Independent. 

The bill puts a 3 percent cap on the number of students who can leave a district each year.

“We pretend that there is no school choice, but we have made an economic decision here in the state of Missouri that those who are wealthy get better education than those who are not wealthy,” state Rep. Barbara Phifer, D-St. Louis, said. “We can argue about that, and we can actually change the way that we fund public education so that we have more equity.”

Open enrollment also pits one school district against another, Berger said. 

“There’s a pot of money set aside for schools to dip into if they’re going to be sending students to another school district,” he said. “So instead of funding public education appropriately, we create these expenditure pools that just bleed the state.”

He also said that’s not unusual for the state.

One-time payments hamper the future

For instance, Berger said that despite the state having more resources than any other time in history, legislators did nothing to help permanently increase teacher pay in the state, instead choosing to allow schools to apply for a grant.

Missouri currently ranks 50th in the nation for average beginning teacher pay, according to the National Education Association.

Only those school districts paying teachers less than $38,000 a year were allowed to apply for the grant. Wright City has been about $40,000.

“So we get not one penny from that,” Berger said. And while he was happy to see teachers in the eligible districts get a pay increase, he also said the grant poses a serious issue moving forward.

“The legislature didn’t do anything permanent about that. That was a one-time teacher grant,” he said. 

And now those districts that received money from the grant have to hope the state continues to offer it, lest they have to cut teacher pay.

“What a horrible place to put our public schools, a horrible place to put our teachers, and a horrible place to put our public school students,” Berger said.

The legislature did the same thing with early childhood education, creating a one-time pre-K grant for districts.

“Certainly Wright City took advantage of that,” Berger said.

He said there’s a chance the state could continue to fund the grant, but it’s not part of the foundation formula.

“So when the state gets a little bit lean, they’re going to clip that,” Berger said. 

“I think it’s inevitable and that’s going to become another local effort obligation.”

Between the push to privatize education, and the piece-meal efforts for public education, it’s a lot of school districts to overcome.

“It’s death by 1,000 cuts,” Berger said. “I think these other efforts are just continuing to bleed out public education to make potentially that big move (to privatize education) more palatable.”

Believing public education will survive

Still, Berger sees public education persevering in Missouri.

“The pendulum will swing, I think,” he said. “And as these things get closer and closer to patrons in communities that might see their very own public school at risk, they’ll come more in tune with those issues.”

Right now, Berger said there are elected officials who support these drastic moves because they don’t affect their individual school districts.

“It’s just that in seven or 10 years, now they’re doing that in our community,” he said. “They are overreaching and I do think there’s going to be eventually some pushback to that and a correction. It has to. Outside of that, if you’re looking at the future of public schools, it doesn’t look so bright.

“I think people are going to have to inform themselves, they’re going to have to engage and they are going to have to protect their local schools and the way they do that is push back on some of this overreach from the state and taking dollars away from their public schools to reallocate them to some private or charter school in another part of the state.”

About the author: Jason Koch is the editor of The Warren County Record, and covers local news and government for the newspaper. He has won multiple awards from both the Indiana and Illinois APME and from the Illinois Press Association. He can be reached at 636-456-6397 or at

wright city, public education, missouri, teacher, pay