Mississippi House advances new public school funding formula
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi House members chose Republicans vision of practicality and transparency in education funding Wednesday over Democrats’ aims for more money and more equitable treatment of poor students.
After three-plus hours of debate, the House voted 66-54 to advance House Bill 957 , a measure sponsored by House Speaker Philip Gunn to rewrite Mississippi’s public school formula after 20 years of wrangling over the current Mississippi Adequate Education Program.
After the vote, Gunn said the new formula offers “predictability — what the superintendents have been asking for: understanding — everybody can understand it. It’s just going to provide a more reliable stream of funding.”
Democrats, though, countered that Republicans want to replace the current formula to end the political headache of being bashed for falling short of the funding goal that the adequate education program mandates. Although the new bill calls for the Mississippi Department of Education and lawmakers to periodically study adjusting spending levels, it doesn’t mandate increases for inflation — or for any other reason.
“Now, the legislature can decide every year what amount it wants to spend on public education without regard to what it actually costs to educate our children,” said House Minority Leader David Baria, a Bay St. Louis Democrat. “This is a sad day for public school advocates.”
Republicans, though, have been frank that removing that mandate is one of their goals.
“If you escalate it every year, it gets to be an unrealistic number,” House Education Committee Chairman Richard Bennett, a Long Beach Republican, said during debate Wednesday.
The bill envisions increasing funding by $107 million over today levels after a seven-year phase in. But the proposal at that point would spend $157 million less than the current formula legally mandates next year.
A total of 24 school districts are projected to lose money, while 118 are projected to gain. However, questions remain about where lawmakers will get the additional money.
The bill would provide a base student cost of $4,800, allocated to educate a student with no special requirements. It would then add extra per-student amounts for special education students, gifted students, high school students and those learning English. Extremely rural districts also would get an extra bump.
Bennett argued the new plan was better because the current formula gives out money for some things, such as gifted students or career-technical education, based on how much a district is spending, meaning the money isn’t distributed equitably on a per-student basis.
“MAEP was not a fair formula by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.
Bennett and other leaders had said previously that they were looking at rolling other educational funding from other pots into the new formula. However, on Wednesday, Bennett said that he hoped to find money from growing revenues to fund the measure. Current projections show $53 million would be needed in the 2021 budget.
“This is what the leadership wants,” Bennett said. “This is what they are committed to funding every year at a minimum.”
Members voted down 17 amendments offered by Democrats after approving two offered by Bennett. Statewatch, a bill-tracking service, said that was the most amendments offered to any bill since at least 2004.
Several Democrats focused on trying to change the bill so that the base student cost would rise automatically with inflation or some other number. Baria proposed increasing the base cost to $4,900, index it to inflation and prohibit ever lowering the floor below $4,900. “We don’t want to come back here and have this fight every year about whether we increase that base student cost.”
Some Democrats also focused on Republican leadership’s decision to preserve a rule that guarantees property-rich districts only pay for 27 percent of the total formula cost, when state and local contributions are combined. That rule means more state money flows to some property-rich districts. Bennett promised more study of that question, but rejected efforts to change it now.
Other Democrats focused on how the formula uses the Census Bureau’s measure of child poverty to determine how much extra money a district gets to educate poor students. They said they believe those estimates don’t reflect that in some districts, more affluent white students are in private schools, leaving a higher share of poorer black students in public schools.
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