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Democrats seek to change the terms of school funding debate

February 17, 2018

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Opponents of changing the way Mississippi funds its public schools say that all schools will come out poorer under a proposed new formula than if the current one were fully funded.

Only twice in 20 years have lawmakers provided the entire amount demanded by the current Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Last month, representatives approved House Bill 957 , which would replace the current formula with one that Republicans say would be more transparent and affordable. The measure awaits Senate action, which could come soon after Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves assigned the bill to the Senate Education Committee on Friday.

Sen. Hob Bryan, an Amory Democrat who helped write the existing law, said that the bill’s promise of increasing funding by $107 million after a seven-year phase-in falls short of what schools should get if the current formula was completely funded and grew modestly.

“They’re repealing this existing formula and replacing it with a new one, so that’s what we ought to be comparing it to.” Bryan said a Tuesday news conference. He released calculations showing that if the adequate education program were fully funded and grew by 1 percent per year going forward, total K-12 funding would be about $300 million higher than the $2.3 billion proposed in the new plan.

The dispute over whether a new formula should be measured against what districts get now, versus what they would get if the current formula was fully funded, has been a persistent feature of debate over the last two years. When The Associated Press released its own calculations in 2017 comparing one proposal to what districts then received, Bryan held a news conference attacking those comparisons.

Some superintendents have supported change, saying they’ve given up hope that a Republican-controlled Legislature will ever live up to its legal obligation to contribute the full amount required by the adequate education program. Lawmakers have come up a cumulative $2.1 billion short since 2009. It would cost $2.46 billion to reach full funding in 2019, but lawmakers currently recommend spending $184 million less. The Supreme Court ruled last year that lawmakers aren’t bound by the law requiring them to meet target funding.

Republicans are still determined to wipe out the old formula. That’s in part because Democrats bash them for falling short of full funding, even though funding also ran short when Democrats led the Legislature. Gov. Phil Bryant said in his January State of the State that any funding plan “should not be a political prop used to allege someone’s failure to support education.”

Some House Republicans say the state just can’t afford to spend as much on education as the current formula demands.

“To fully fund MAEP is impossible if other essential services are to be provided to Mississippians,” House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett, a Long Beach Republican, wrote in an opinion piece Tuesday.

Funding will fall behind even a modest 1 percent inflation rate over the next seven years under the House plan. The current funding proposal plans to spend $2.28 billion in the budget year beginning July 1. That’s a few million more than this year, but less than in 2015-2016, even without adjusting for inflation. Formula spending in Mississippi this year is running 12 percent lower, after adjusting for inflation, than at its 2008 high.

Nancy Loome, leader of The Parents Campaign, wrote Friday that the seven-year phase-in projects slower growth than during the Haley Barbour and Phil Bryant administrations.

“It provides less than what current law requires,” wrote Loome, whose group is among the most persistent critics of underfunding. “It is worse than the education funding trend during the Barbour years. It is even worse than the current Legislature’s school funding pattern of the last six years.”

While the current formula adjusts to try to account for changing costs, the new plan currently calls only for the Mississippi Department of Education and lawmakers to periodically study adjusting spending. It doesn’t mandate increases for inflation — or for any other reason.

“The existing formula that’s on the books is based on trying to determine how much money we actually need to produce the level of education we’re trying to produce,” Bryan said.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/Jeff_Amy .

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This story has been corrected to delete attribution to Bryan in 10th and 13th paragraphs.

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