The top education issue facing legislators this session is whether to rewrite the formula for state financing of public schools.
The Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), adopted in 1997, calculates how much money is required each year for public school students to receive an adequate education.
The formula has only been fully funded twice by the Legislature since becoming law, a fact opponents of a rewrite point to as evidence there’s no need to change the formula.
For Fiscal Year 2017, which began July 1, the state appropriated $2.52 billion for education. The Parents Campaign estimates that number was $172 million less than the MAEP formula called for.
A 2015 ballot initiative intended to force legislators to fully fund the MAEP formula led to a contentious statewide campaign. The effort failed when a majority of voters went against amending the state constitution, despite voting in favor of requiring full funding of the MAEP formula.
Speaker of the House Philip Gunn said he hopes the rewrite will help bring down school administrative costs, which have risen in recent years.
Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said he hopes the formula ensures money intended for certain students or initiatives actually goes where it should.
“It’s one of the reasons a lot of people have lost confidence in it (the MAEP). A new formula will help you specifically target money towards a (specific) policy,” Tollison said. “When you give a weight to K-3 (kindergartners through 3rd graders) for literacy, you know specifically that money should be spent for that … That’s to me helpful in terms of being more targeted and student-centered.”
A fight against a formula change is anticipated. One of the MAEP formula’s most outspoken proponents is Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, a co-author of the law.
“There is simply no problem with the existing funding formula, nor with the other funding requirements in existing law, other than the Republican leadership refuses to fund them,” Bryan said. “There has not been a single hearing of either the House or Senate education committees at which the formula has been discussed.”
Gunn has repeatedly pointed to increased administrative costs in schools as a problem with the MAEP, but Bryan disagrees, noting local school districts determine the number of administrators and salaries.
“The formula, itself, does not require one red cent be spent on administration. If there is a problem with administration, then that’s not the fault of the formula,” Bryan said. “Why don’t they do something about whatever it is that’s causing the excess administration – and I don’t agree that there is any … The choices about administration are made by the individual school boards.”
Gunn spokeswoman Meg Annison said the Speaker hopes the Legislature adopts a requirement that school districts use a uniform chart of accounts to make it clear what money is being spent where. Because districts receive their funds as a lump sum, it is difficult to determine how districts’ federal, state or local dollars are being spent.
Aside from a rewrite to make school funding more specific to each individual student, or “student based funding,” Gunn said he will file, as he does every year, a bill to exempt high-performing school districts from certain requirements.
Gunn introduced a bill last year that would have exempted school districts rated A and B from reporting student grades to the Mississippi Department of Education, having their discipline plan audited each year, the submission of certain reports to and completing surveys from the state Education Department.
“If they’re producing top-quality graduates, they’ve proven in my mind that they are doing a good job, and we need to relieve them of many of the burdens and restrictions that might be implement for school districts that aren’t performing (well),” Gunn explained. “I say we give them more freedom.”
Gunn is also an advocate of making the ACT tests the standard test for all grades and reducing the number of school days spent preparing for and taking standardized tests.
There will likely be more school district consolidations in 2017 given recent trends. In the 2016 session, there were four consolidations. Lawmakers approved consolidating Holmes County and Durant districts; Winona and Montgomery districts; Lumberton School District and adjoining districts; and Leflore County and Greenwood districts.
Districts targeted for consolidation will be those that meet one of two criteria: the district is getting too small to sustain itself long-term or chronic under performance.
Both Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said they will support more consolidations if in the best interest of the districts.
Scholarship accounts for special needs students
Reeves said he is aware there is a waiting list of 125 students to receive vouchers, or scholarships, for students with special needs.
The Legislature passed the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Program in 2015, and as a result, 274 students (Editor’s note: This number was updated from what was in the original story to reflect information released by the Education Department on Jan. 4) in Mississippi are currently receiving public scholarships, or vouchers, to be used outside the public school system for education and other services . The scholarships (called scholarships because they go directly to parents and can be used for educational services outside of tuition) are for $6,500 per year.
When asked whether he would support an expansion of the program, Reeves’ spokeswoman Laura Hipp pointed to the waiting list of 125 students whose parents want them to participate in the program.
“He is willing to consider any ideas to improve access to educational options for Mississippi students,” she said.
House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon said, however, that an expansion of the program like the one proposed last year is not likely due to budget constraints.
“Anything that adds a significant amount of money will probably be held back for a little while,” Moore said.
Moore said he hopes there will also be discussion about ways to address the teacher shortage across the state. Currently, 48 school districts are considered as “critical shortage” areas, or areas with a shortage of qualified teachers.
“There needs to be some brainstorming and everybody needs to go outside the box to see if we can encourage retired teachers to come back into the classroom and encourage people that might be kind of fed up with what they’re doing now to go the alternate route … There are a lot of very intelligent people out there that would do well as teachers,” Moore said.
Department of Education priorities
The Department’s legislative priorities include increasing funding for the state’s early learning collaborative programs and literacy efforts, along with an overhaul of the state’s student data system.
The department is also asking for increased funding for professional development for teachers and principals, among other requests for increased funding.