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Lawmakers divided over new public education funding formula

Photo courtesy of TeleSouth Communications, Inc.

Last week, after hours of debate on the House floor, a bill outlining a new funding formula for Mississippi public education passed with a 66-52 final vote. The bill, titled the “Mississippi Uniform Per Student Funding Formula Act of 2018”, would replace MAEP, which has not been fully funded since 2008.

Following the passage of this legislation, Speaker of the House and author of the bill, Philip Gunn said that this is just the first step, and that the MAEP formula was dated.

“Today, we have accomplished the first step of our goal of sending more dollars to the teachers and students in the classroom,” said Speaker Gunn. “We have worked with the Lieutenant Governor and the Senate to craft this legislation that creates a more equitable, fair funding formula. We look forward to continue working with them as we see this bill through the legislative process. The current funding formula was written almost two decades ago and has not kept up with the needs of the classroom of the 21st Century,” he continued. “We are moving to a student-centered funding formula.”

The formula is based on recommendations made to lawmakers by EdBuild, a consulting company which was brought in last year to evaluate the state’s public education funding formula. In their recommendations, it states a student-based formula is a way to lessen discrepancies between districts.

“Using a weighted student formula ensures that students with special learning needs (and cost considerations) are funded by the state at the same level, no matter where they are enrolled in school This will smooth out large discrepancies in per-student funding between districts in the state.”

State Superintendent Dr. Carey Wright gave an example of how the formula works, and says that it’s a better way to get resources to students for their unique needs across the state.

“I think it’s a really good concept to apply additional dollars to the different needs that students have across the state,” Wright said. “In Biloxi, 12% of students don’t speak English as their first language, and these children are more expensive to educate. And the concept behind the weighted formula is to give additional money per child based on those needs. Poorer students, gifted students, special needs children all get a different weight which would allow us to get the appropriate funding to those students for their needs.”

House Democrats called for more time before a vote was taken on the bill, but their push for that time failed. Rep. Robert Johnson was among those calling for more time to be taken on the issue, and says that both houses along with the Department of Education should sit down to look at the bill.

“Why aren’t we sitting down with the experts that we contracted (Edbuild) and the Department of Education and the education committees form both houses to put this together instead of just saying ‘okay we met with the experts and asked the Department of Education a few questions’.”

Johnson went on to say that if the bill was going to be voted on this year, lawmakers should have been able to debate it and read up on the bill throughout the entirety of the legislative session.

“This is a transformative bill, a bill that’s 354 pages long that has only been out for two days. We’re here for 90 days, it doesn’t make sense to me to have a bill that affects a $3 billion budget that you don’t spend the whole session working on,” Johnson said.

After the vote, the Democratic Caucus released a statement voicing their displeasure with the bill. They claim that the formula doesn’t provide a guarantee for funding levels and that it won’t help students.

“The biggest problem with what we have done here today is to remove what has been the standard for funding education in our state for 20 years without providing any guarantee of any particular level of funding for schools whatsoever,” said House Minority Caucus Chairman David Baria. “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. This is a sad day for public school advocates.”

The statement went on to say that the 27 percent rule will remain. They say that because of this, the state will lose out on an additional $120 million by capping tax-rich districts on their contributions.

Speaker Gunn outlined a few key points of the bill in a media release after last night’s session and said that the bill would gradually allocate $107 million over the next five years to education in Mississippi.

  • Base student cost set at $4,800, with additional weights added for specific student needs: special education for the different tiers, English language learners, gifted students, low income and high school.
  • Funding based on average daily membership (ADM, enrollment figures would be monitored three times a year), rather than average daily attendance (ADA).
  • Methods for consistent, accessible reporting.

Rep. Jay Hughes says that while the bill promises additional funding, it still falls short of where the state needs to be.

“Along mostly party lines, the House of Representatives tonight rejected 19 amendments by Democrats, and passed a bill to formally repeal M.A.E.P., and replace it with a bill that, at best, will fund public education at a level that is $150 Million less than the current law defines as adequate,” Hughes said.

Rep. Joel Bomgar says that he believes this formula to be an improvement over MAEP, and he is happy to put his support behind the bill.

“House Bill 957 requires that the legislature spend $107 million more than it currently spends on public schools, but it does not raise taxes,” Bomgar said. “After reading and studying the bill and speaking with our local leaders, I was happy to support this bill. These changes are an improvement over the current formula which is restrictive for schools and has only been funded twice over the last two decades.

Chairman of the House Committee on Education Richard Bennett says that while there is disagreement on this bill, it should not deter lawmakers from constantly working to improve education in Mississippi.

“I truly believe every person in this chamber wants what’s best for education. I believe this a good formula, I believe in this formula. I think it’s a much better formula than MAEP, but don’t let this divide us going forward on improving education in Mississippi. We’ve got to improve education in Mississippi to move forward as a state,” Bennett said.

The bill will now be sent to the Senate where they will be able to make changes, debate, and vote on the bill as well.

If enacted, the formula will go into effect in 2020.

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