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The House and Senate Education Committees on Thursday heard from EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia, who could become one of the most influential people deciding how schools will be funded in the state.

The Republican legislative leadership announced earlier this month it would hire her New Jersey-based nonprofit to review and make recommendations about the state’s current funding formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP).

In her first presentation at the Capitol, Sibilia repeatedly said EdBuild believes in a “student-based formula,” or one that determines a base student cost for a regular student then adds additional funds for students with certain needs or circumstances. These can include academic status, economic status and any special education requirements, among others.

The move to hire EdBuild comes after years of criticism of the funding formula from lawmakers, including a statewide debate last year over a citizens’ referendum that would have required the Legislature to fully fund the current formula. EdBuild will make preliminary recommendations by the end of this year and continue to work with the state as needed next year, Sibilia said.

In addition to lawmakers, Thursday’s presentation attracted school superintendents, lobbyists and education advocates.

Some believe tying a set amount of money to an individual student is a step toward vouchers for students who want to attend private schools.

“This is an attempt to move in the direction of vouchers,” Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said. “Ultimately, there will be a piece of legislation written in secret, appear late in the session as a conference committee report, and the Legislature will vote on it without knowing what they’re voting on.”

Sibilia, however, said student-based formulas allow for more innovation in districts and ensure students’ individual needs are met.

“Most of the states that have a student-based funding start with a lower (base) cost, just what’s bare bones necessary in a school district, then (the formula) has more progressive weights associated with each individual student,” she explained.

Mississippi’s current per student cost is approximately $5,300. School districts receive a 5 percent increase for students who are in the free and reduced lunch program, or socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Sibilia pointed out that Mississippi currently funds special needs students based on the number of special education teachers and is one of a few states not to provide additional funding for English Language Learners, or students whose first language is not English.

Mississippi also does not base its funding on students’ grade levels, a practice Sibilia says is used in other states.

“In Florida and Georgia, for example, additional resources are provided for students in early grades,” Sibilia explained. “This is reflective of additional costs in a classroom to have smaller class sizes and more individualized learning for early learners, such as making sure students are reading by the 3rd grade.”

EdBuild worked with Georgia on its funding formula last year. The funding subcommittee Sibilia’s team worked with eventually recommended adding $258 million to the education budget and, as funds are available, an additional $209 million. It also adopted a formula based on three components: student based funding, weighted student characteristics, and categorical grants, or funds for districts to pay fixed administrative costs.

“We stand by the elements in the funding subcommittee’s recommendations,” Sibilia said when asked about the outcomes in Georgia.

When lawmakers drilled down on specifics, such as how much extra funds poor students will receive in this formula, she reiterated that EdBuild will only be able to provide preliminary recommendations by the end of the year.

Rep. Greg Holloway, D-Hazlehurst, asked how EdBuild would propose to shift resources from wealthy to less affluent districts.

“I can’t tell you right now what our recommendation will be related to equity. We will make sure there is a strong equity provision in our recommendations that does not punish areas with more wealth,” Sibilia responded.

Several committee members expressed concern about opportunities for their input and more information from the organization. Both committee chairmen assured them there will be additional meetings but provided no specifics.

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, was impressed by Sibilia’s recommendation that as much education funding as possible — including early childhood education and 3rd grade literacy coaches — be included inside the formula. Currently, the money for the state’s Early Learning Collaboratives, or partnerships between public and private early learning centers, and literacy coaches are not funded within the MAEP formula.

“I think it’s a great thing,” Wiggins said. “She testified to us that a lot of people in different states believe early education is worthwhile.”

He also said the increased funding for English Language Learners would help districts like Pascagoula Gautier, which has a large number of Spanish-speaking students.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson Credit: Gil Ford Photography

Rep. David Blount, D-Jackson, said he is encouraged by the goals EdBuild states on its website: increased education funding and additional resources for low-income students.

“But for any recommendation to be helpful it has to include real input from elected officials, teachers, parents,” Blount said. “If the people and their elected representatives are not a real part of the process then it’s not a credible recommendation.”

Contributing: Adam Ganucheau

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.