The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 5, 2012

Kevin Wilson, guest columnist: Bus advertising not best option for funding schools

By Kevin Wilson
The Joplin Globe

— The 2012 Missouri legislative session is quickly winding down, and if a bill hasn’t crossed from one chamber to the other by now then it’s most likely dead for the year — unless the sponsor can find a bill they can stick it on as an amendment.

I know a lot of people don’t like it when legislators do that, but sometimes it’s the only way a measure can get through the messy, winding legislative process.

One bill with local ties that has made its way through the House and is now in the Senate is House Bill 1273, sponsored by freshman legislator Mike Kelley, R-Lamar. This is an interesting bill that is ripe for discussion among educators and community members alike. Kelley’s bill would allow local school boards to lease advertising space on both the interior and the exterior of public school busses. The point of this column is not to applaud or attack Kelley for his efforts; I merely seek to bring about a discussion of the pros and cons of his proposal.

The bill itself outlines certain guidelines that any advertising must follow and also prohibits certain ads. A stipulation in the bill that I find contradictory is one that prohibits advertising that “contains an actual or implied school district endorsement for a product or service.” I understand the intent, but I wonder how the general public will interpret an ad on the side of a public school bus driving around town. I think John and Suzie Public would assume that since the schools are allowing the ad to be on their bus then they must endorse the product.

I think the bigger question is whether or not we want our schools to become advertising departments that sell classified ads to the highest bidder. And, from a safety standpoint, do we want the driving public to be paying more attention to the ad on the side of a bus than on the road? I drive a lot of miles in a given year and let me tell you, the way some people drive, I don’t want them distracted any more than they already are.

As I said, I’m not trying to deride Kelley for his legislation. I haven’t talked with him to understand his intentions for sponsoring this legislation. But I would assume that he is merely trying to find new sources to replace dwindling state reimbursements for school transportation expenses. I applaud him for thinking outside the box and for ensuring in the legislation that the local school boards would have control over the decisions.

I also think he has sparked some well-deserved discussion regarding school financing. In a previous column, I mentioned the bigger picture. The real big picture is how schools are funded and the commitment the local community is willing to make to ensure that our kids are educated and ready for the future.

I served on the legislative committee that rewrote the education funding formula, and we worked hard to make sure that state funds were distributed based on student needs, not just district wealth. No formula is perfect, but we set a baseline that ensured that every district had an adequate amount of aid to provide a good basic education to students.

But some districts want to provide more than that basic education, and the patrons either support those efforts or they don’t. What you are left with is a district that reflects the priorities its residents want in an educational system. I am more than concerned that many local education ballot issues only garner scant interest from voters, and the results are sometimes widely panned by those who didn’t even take the time to vote.

An educated populace is vital to the economic growth of any society, and no part of the formal education cycle is more important than that provided by our elementary and secondary school system. While I commend Kelley on wanting to give our local school districts more options, I hope that we don’t rely on school bus advertising to fund our kids’ education. We can and should do better than that.

Kevin Wilson, a former state representative, lives in Neosho.