Lawmakers to reconsider school funding formula

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Legislative leaders announced Tuesday that they are hiring a firm to reconsider the way public education in Mississippi is funded.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn said at a joint press conference Tuesday afternoon that the ultimate goal of the reassessment is to “modernize the outdated school funding formula” and “direct more tax dollars into the classroom.”

The move comes after years of criticism of the funding formula from lawmakers, including an emotional statewide debate in 2015 over a citizens’ referendum, called Propostion 42, that would have forced the Legislature to fully fund the current formula, called the  The Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP).

Gunn and Reeves said the Mississippi Legislature has contracted with New Jersey-based EdBuild to assess whether to change the state’s current public education formula. If Mississippi officials agree with the non-profit’s recommendations, a new formula will be written and could be considered as soon as the 2017 legislative session.

House Speaker Philip Gunn details a plan to reassess the current public education formula. Behind Gunn, from left, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Sen. Buck Clarke and Rep. John Read.

Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today

House Speaker Philip Gunn details a plan to reassess the current public education formula. Behind Gunn, from left, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Sen. Buck Clarke and Rep. John Read.

The MAEP formula stipulates how much money school districts need each year to provide an adequate education to students. Passed into law in 1997, the Legislature has fully funded the formula twice.

Gunn said EdBuild’s foundation will pay for half the cost of the $250,000 study, meaning the state’s cost will be $125,000. Public meetings on the study will be announced later, leaders said.

“We want to decide if it makes sense for the state to change the funding formula, that we’re doing in a way that’s focused on doing what’s best for kids,” Reeves said. “Doing what’s best for kids, we believe, is increasing funding in the classroom while not increasing funding in the district office.”

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, one of the primary authors of the MAEP, said he was not consulted by Reeves or Gunn about the desire to re-evaluate the formula.

“This is not an attempt to find proper funding for public education,” Bryan said. “This is to have an excuse for what they have been doing and what they will do in the future, which is to reduce funding for public education.”

Reeves said the primary purpose of the study is to do what is best for schoolchildren.

“If all we cared about was the politics of education funding, we could just take the money we’re currently spending outside the formula, put it in the formula, call it full funding and then politically, everybody’s happy,” Reeves said.

MAEP is not the only source of funding for public schools. A number of education programs are funded by the Legislature outside of the MAEP formula.

“It’s not about the politics of the funding formula; it’s about doing what’s best for kids,” he continued. “We’ve spent almost $50 million in the last three years on hiring reading coaches to go and help kids improve their reading in kindergarten through third grade. That’s not in the formula.”

The decision to conduct the study was made largely without public input. Despite reports of a group of lawmakers meeting in recent months to discuss a re-evaluation of the formula and to consult outside groups, House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, told Mississippi Today last month there was “nothing official going on, not that I’m aware of anyway.”

Moore added that no meetings were taking place regarding the MAEP that were “anything unusual. (There’s) no formal discussion going on other than what’s been going on in the last couple years.”

Last month, State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright told Mississippi Today no one from her agency had been asked to provide feedback with legislators about the formula.

Reeves and Gunn said Rules Committees from both the Senate and House of Representatives met Tuesday morning and approved the contract.

Sen. John Horhn, D-Hinds

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. John Horhn, D-Hinds County

Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, who is on the Senate Rules Committee, said he first heard about the funding reconsideration last week when he was given notice of the Tuesday morning Rules Committee meeting. The Rules Committee meetings are subject to the Open Meetings Act, and the meetings were posted on the Mississippi Legislature’s website last week.

“I’m all for anything that will approve and provide additional funding for public education in Mississippi,” Horhn said. “From what I understand, the woman who runs this group has impeccable credentials.”

“Mississippi is similar to many other states that rely on a funding formula that is antiquated and arbitrary,” EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia said in a statement. “The needs of the classroom are not the same as they were 20, 50 or 100 years ago, and states’ funding mechanisms should reflect that progress in education.”