Democrats alarmed by possible changes in education funding

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Smaller class sizes, up-to-date books and better school facilities were among the needs representatives of the Mississippi education sector spoke about Thursday during a public hearing to raise issues about the state’s public education funding budget.

Attendees said the hearing, hosted by the Joint House/Senate Black Caucus and Democratic Caucus, was the first of its kind this legislative session that focused on issues the public feels the legislature should consider as it contemplates changes to the state’s public education funding formula.

The session was not a formal legislative committee meeting and no Republican members of the legislature attended.

Rep. Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez

“Our goals today were to make sure we provided a vehicle for the public to understand what the real issues of education are, what the real funding issues are and that … these are the things (the legislature) should be concerned about,” said state Rep. Robert Johnson III, D-Natchez.

Johnson, who serves as the House Democratic Caucus vice chairman, said the legislature is getting ready to vote on a multi-billion dollar educational budget.

Among items for consideration are a possible reduction to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. The program became law in 1997 and sets a formula for determining the amount of spending needed to ensure an adequate education for Mississippi students. Johnson said the legislature is currently $2 billion short of where it should be to fully fund the program.

Joyce Helmick, president of Mississippi Association of Educators, said some resources needed in public schools throughout the state include libraries, updated computers and buildings and safe buses.

“All of these require Legislative leaders to fund the state’s fair share of our students’ public education,” Helmick said.

Helmick also recommended raising the starting salary of teachers from $33,400 to $40,000 to address a teacher shortage in some areas of the state.

Also speaking at the session, Rhea Bishop, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Education Innovation, said funding for at-risk students should be increased.

“Any attempt to reconfigure this formula to reduce or divert funding from existing Mississippi school districts would be a direct, intentional assault waged against our most vulnerable students,” Bishop said.

Acknowledging that many of the issues aren’t new, Johnson said he hopes the issues discussed will motivate citizens to pressure legislators to place a higher priority on education.