Democrats seek delay on school funding rewrite

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Kayleigh Skinner/Mississippi Today

Fourth grader Kayden Johnson shares his thoughts on fully funding schools with lawmakers on Jan. 17, 2017.

Democratic legislators Friday urged Gov. Phil Bryant and their colleagues to wait a year before considering a rewrite of the state’s school funding formula.

The Mississippi Legislative Democratic Caucus and Legislative Black Caucus held a hearing to discuss funding and listen to another New Jersey-based consultant talk about how to fully fund schools.

On Jan. 16, EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia outlined a proposal to the Legislature which would shift state education funding to a weighted student formula. On Friday, educators, parents, and members of the both caucuses gathered at the Capitol to listen to a representative from the Newark, N.J.-based Education Law Center discuss adequate education funding.

Research associate Monete Johnson briefed the audience on a recent study published by the center, which suggests states across the country should provide more funding to districts serving larger shares of students in poverty to make school funding fair and equitable.

According to the report, Mississippi does a good job of enrolling low-income children in early childhood education, but ranks 46th in the study’s measure of funding level, meaning Mississippi students generally receive less funding than students with similar circumstances and needs in other states.

Johnson said Mississippi is facing a “double whammy” — education in the state has consistently received a low level of funding, and that amount has remained flat, she said.

Whatever the Legislature decides, having a fair formula “is just part of the fight,” Johnson said. A school funding formula needs to be fully funded to be successful and should have mechanisms in place that allow the Legislature to tweak it without having the change the entire thing, she said.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Sen. Bill Stone, D-Holly Springs

Democratic caucus chairman Sen. Bill Stone, D- Holly Springs, said the meeting was not about approving of or picking apart the EdBuild proposal.

“We are here to gather information, Stone said. “We’re not here to bash EdBuild.”

Rep. Sonya Williams Barnes, D-Gulfport, told reporters at a press conference following the hearing that the Legislature should needs “data, dialogue and time” before any decisions are made.

Earlier Friday, House Education Committee Chairman Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, told the House there was currently no bill that would change state funding formula.

“There is not even a template,” Moore said. “We don’t have any proposed legislation that would change the formula.”

Democrats held a similar meeting last week to stress that more information was needed to determine what EdBuild’s formula would look like in dollar amounts. On Friday House Minority Leader Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis repeated that sentiment.

“We believe that we ought to slow this train down. It’s too important a decision,” Baria said.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis

“We’re talking about probably the largest single component of our budget and nobody understands it and we don’t have a bill to look at, not even a template yet,” Baria said. “We really ought to be digging in deeper … slow the process down. This can wait til next year.”

At the hearing, Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Philip Hickman said the Legislature should be deliberate in whatever it chooses to do, but there isn’t much time to waste, he said.

“I don’t think we need to just rush into something,” Hickman said. “I also believe in shoot first and aim later because our kids do not have time for us to sit in rooms and talk and talk and talk.”