From left to right: Mississippi First deputy director Sanford Johnson, The Parents’ Campaign executive director Nancy Loome, Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, Empower Mississippi president Grant Callen

Three education advocates and a state senator each agree the current school funding formula needs work but differ on what needs to change and why.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, Nancy Loome, Grant Callen and Sanford Johnson discussed the pros and pitfalls of how public schools are funded in Mississippi and what to expect in the upcoming legislative session during a panel at Millsaps College on Friday.

Loome is executive director of education advocacy group The Parents’ Campaign; Callen is executive director of school-choice advocacy group Empower Mississippi; Sanford is deputy director of education research and policy group Mississippi First.

In January, the New Jersey-based nonprofit EdBuild presented recommendations to change the current funding formula to a weighted one where the state sets a base cost to educate a student and adds additional funding for specific types of students. EdBuild did not present a new formula, but instead provided suggestions on how to build a new one.

The Legislature never publicly produced or voted on a bill to change the formula, so today the state continues to use a hybrid known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) which uses both student-based and resource-based funding. The amount of money is partly determined and distributed based on individual student characteristics and the other based on needed resources, such as staffing and supply levels.

The MAEP formula has been fully funded only twice in 20 years, and the Mississippi Supreme Court recently ruled that the legislature is not required to do so.

Last school year, the actual funding per student came out to $4,980, which is $387 below full funding. EdBuild’s recommendations did not require setting a base cost, something Loome said is a major problem.

“However we decide to compute the formula, what matters is that schools have enough,” Loome said.

Without a base cost or formula for figuring that out, there is no way to hold the Legislature accountable, she said.

“If we don’t know what full funding is I can’t tell you how much your school district is underfunded right?” Loome said. “So whatever number the Legislature decides to plug in for the base cost is full funding by virtue of the way that that law could be written.”

Callen said whatever the formula is, it needs to be equitable, transparent and student centered, and he argued that MAEP is “the most complex, confusing, perplexing piece of public policy I think the state has ever put together.”

A new formula should delegate more control to parents on how public dollars are spent on their children, he said.

“If parents see that their child is not being well served in the setting they’re in, they must have the freedom to move from that school to a better public school, a charter school, a private school and let the funds follow their child to make sure those funds are accomplishing what the Legislature intended, which is to make that child have access to a great education,” Callen said.

Loome disagreed, and responded that it was not appropriate for public money to go to private schools which have the ability to turn students away, unlike public schools.

Johnson said he hoped a future formula would include EdBuild’s recommendations which provide weights for different categories of students such as low-income and English language learners and may do a better job of holding districts accountable for how the money is spent. Currently, school districts receive a lump sum to distribute at their own discretion.

With MAEP, schools and districts receive funding from the state but also receive money at the local level. Districts must contribute $28 for every $1,000 of assessed property value in the school district, but there is also a rule that a district is not required to provide more than 27 percent of the funds calculated through the MAEP formula. If the value of 28 mills is more than 27 percent of the total funding amount, the state provides the difference between the two amounts.

This is what Johnson called a “loophole.” Districts with a wealthier tax base pay less in local contributions since the state covers the difference. Blount said this was a factor in why a bill never materialized during the session.

“Many of those members, most of whom are Republican, were concerned about a possible negative impact on their local communities and the traumatic increase in local property taxes because of the actions taken by the Legislature and that’s why we never saw a bill and there was no vote despite all this massive interest in this important topic.

“Decisions are made by a small group of people without talking to anybody, without any public input,” Blount said. “If somebody has a bill to change the formula, lets see it.”

Before EdBuild was involved, “I think there were a lot of people in the Legislature that felt that we can under-fund schools and there’s no political consequence for it,” Johnson said.

“In other words, I can under-fund schools and you’re still going to send me to Jackson every four years,” he said, referring to the legislative election cycle. “When we talk about 2019 I think that’s going to be a big question – are legislators going to pay a political consequence?”

The 2018 legislative session is set to begin on Jan. 2.

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.