Senate panel funds MAEP as stopgap

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As legislative leaders continue to craft a new public schools funding formula behind closed doors, the Senate voted on Thursday to fund the old one.

The new formula, which legislative leaders say is still planned to be finished before the new fiscal year begins on July 1, has not yet been finalized.

The House banked on the new formula being ready when they passed the Department of Education’s appropriations bill in mid-February.

But the Senate Appropriations committee, handling that same House bill, voted to level-fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) at $2.2 billion in case a new formula cannot be developed before July.

The bill will go to conference committee where leaders from both chambers will hammer out the details. Any new funding formula would have to be approved by a majority of both houses before becoming law.

Gil Ford photography

Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford

“If a new formula happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, we’ve known as of today that we level funded MAEP,” said Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford and chairman of Senate Education committee.

“This allows the schools to plan,” Tollison said. “They need to know that they’re level funded, and this does that.”

Tollison said that Thursday’s Senate action does not indicate any Senate doubts that the new formula will soon be ready.

Leaders continue to develop the new formula and believe the formula will be ready before next fiscal year, House Speaker Philip Gunn said on Thursday. Any new formula wold be planned as a phase-in, meaning schools would have several years to adjust to the new funding mechanism.

Mississippi Today

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton

“We’re working to rewrite the formula,” Gunn said. “We’re going to find a way to be student centered and base money on student population. When we get that done, we’ll fund it.”

“It could be done before we go home in three weeks,” Gunn said. “If not, it’ll be shortly thereafter. We want it to be right rather than rushed.”

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, in a statement, echoed that sentiment, saying a new formula should be “done the right way, not the quickest way.”

Legislative leadership hired New Jersey nonprofit EdBuild in October to assess and provide recommendations for changing the state’s current school funding formula, known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP).

In January, EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia presented a 79-page report recommended a weighted student funding formula.

Students who fall into certain categories such as special needs, English Language Learners, gifted, and the early and the later grades would receive additional resources under their proposal. If the proposal was taken in full, more than 80 percent of school districts would receive an increase in funding compared to this year’s level of funding, an AP analysis of the numbers showed.

Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today

Rebecca Sibilia, EdBuild CEO

The report also recommended eliminating the 27% rule, which allows property-wealthy school districts to receive a total of $120 million in excess funds, Sibilia said.

However, legislators have repeatedly said they will not be adopting all of the recommendations at once. So far, no specifics have been presented in any legislation. Committees in both the House and the Senate passed placeholder, or dummy, bills earlier in the session to keep the bills alive.

Legislative leaders have said that a special legislative session is likely to handle the adoption of the new formula.

After the Senate Appropriations meeting on Thursday, leaders touted action to level-fund MAEP in a budget year in which most state agencies have seen cuts. The Senate also voted to give an additional $20 million to the School Recognition Program, which rewards well-performing schools in districts across the state.

Also under the Senate education appropriations bill passed on Thursday, the Mississippi Schools for the Blind and Deaf would receive a $1.6 million (14.6 percent) cut from last year, and the Chickasaw Interest program would receive $1.4 million (6.9 percent) less than last year.

Mississippi Today

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves

“The Senate Appropriations committee has passed virtually every spending bill at the legislative budget recommendation, including the public education budget,” Reeves said in the statement. “I’m very proud that at a time when other agencies will see reduced appropriations, classroom spending will increase through the school recognition program.”