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Mississippi House not giving up on replacing public education funding formula

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The Mississippi House of Representatives is remaining persistent in its efforts to discard the state’s current public education funding formula in favor of an entirely new model.

While it appeared that efforts to ax the oft-criticized Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) and move forward with what lawmakers have tabbed the INSPIRE Act had been killed at the capitol, House education leaders managed to pull a rabbit out of their hat to keep the proposal afloat.

On Wednesday, the House  implemented a strike-all amendment into Senate Bill 2693, legislation designed to place failing schools into a district of transformation, and replaced the text with INSPIRE language ahead of Thursday’s deadline to pass bills originating in the other chamber. The House passed the amended bill 103-16 and returned it to the Senate for concurrence.

The move follows Senate Education Committee Chair Dennis DeBar, R-Leaksville, motioning to neither send amended legislation establishing the INSPIRE Act back to the House nor to further debate the bill in conference on Tuesday.

Instead, the Senate proposed a different set of bills to provide an additional $206 million to K-12 public schools and $50 million for teacher pay raises while keeping the MAEP intact. Though Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann admitted that he is not married to the MAEP formula, he and DeBar expressed sentiments insinuating that they were not comfortable jumping the gun with the House’s plan without first having additional conversations with parents and education leaders.

House Speaker Jason White did not buy their reasoning. He also argued there may be ulterior motives at play with the timing and method by which the Senate, under Hosemann’s guidance, went forth with discarding the House’s proposal without any formal discussions between education committee leaders in both chambers.

“I thought for the Senate to critique [the proposal] and the lt. governor’s statement about, ‘Just too much too fast. We’re open. We’re not married to the formula’ and those kinds of things, but yet, we’re going to lob a teacher pay raise and a $200 million increase — it just looked like a smokescreen from the direction we really want to go and the conversations we want to have about the way we fund K-12 education,” White said on MidDays with Gerard Gibert.

“There’s no seriousness to that. It was just thrown out to say, ‘Look over here, but we’re going to give you a pay raise.’ That came out of left field.”

The House initially passed the INSPIRE Act on March 6 and the bill later received a ringing endorsement from Gov. Tate Reeves. INSPIRE would provide a minimal base student cost of $6,650 with public schools in Mississippi receiving more money per pupil based on the number of students coming from low-income households, ones that are English language learners, ones who have special needs, and other factors intended to up the funding for districts with the largest needs.

Nonetheless, the Senate has been deadset on modifying MAEP and working to fully fund an altered version of the formula. Experts estimate that it would cost around $3 billion to fully fund MAEP in its current standing.

After the Senate caused the initial INSPIRE bill to die in committee, legislators in the House took up the Senate’s MAEP modification plan, scrapped it, and inserted the INSPIRE Act in its place. As mentioned earlier, the Senate then killed that bill and offered its own proposal.

Now, the House is once again looking to force its cross-chamber counterparts to bring leadership on both sides together to have a conversation about the best path forward to fund public education in Mississippi.

Opponents of MAEP, such as White, have long argued that the formula is flawed and does not put the interests of pupils first. That being said, the INSPIRE Act has not been floated around the Capitol without attracting critics as some contend the plan does not include an objective formula to provide direct funding for everyday operations at public schools.

Lawmakers will be forced to either come to a compromise or leave public education hanging out to dry as budget discussions loom with the state’s upcoming fiscal year set to begin on July 1.

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