Lt. Gov. will renew push for school funding overhaul in 2018

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Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves asks a question of an agency head during legislative budget hearings in September.

After the Legislature failed to write and pass a new school funding formula in the 2017 session, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves says he and others will push for a student-weighted formula come January.

“It is imperative that we ensure classroom needs are being met, and the best way to do that is through a student-weighted funding formula, meaning the education and needs of each child in a desk are being met,” Reeves told Mississippi Today on Thursday. “Using much of the data collected last session, both chambers will work through a funding plan that prioritizes instruction over administration and support for teacher training and programs that work.”

While Reeves declined to comment on the specifics of a new formula, Mississippi Department of Education communications chief Pete Smith said the department recently provided the most current student data to EdBuild, a consulting group hired by the Legislature in 2016 to study the state’s current education funding formula and recommend improvements in the past few weeks.

When reached by phone Thursday, EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia confirmed that Mississippi lawmakers had recently contacted her to run the latest numbers.

“They (legislative leadership) asked us to run updated numbers using new (student) enrollment,” Sibilia said. “Nothing has changed in terms of our recommendation in the report on the Legislature’s website.”

The group’s report recommends a slight increase in the current base student cost for each child plus additional weights tailored to the individual student. For example, the weights would be added to the base student cost for students with special needs, students in poverty, English language learners and students in the early and high school grades.

The state’s current formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, is a mixture of student-based and resource-based funding, meaning the amount of money is partly determined and distributed based on individual student characteristics and partly based on needed resources, such as school staffing and supply levels.

The EdBuild report also suggested the state bears too much of the burden in funding schools and that local communities should pick up some of the responsibility.

According to an analysis by the Associated Press, 80 percent of schools would receive more funding if the Legislature adopted the group’s recommendations.

Reeves, however, did not comment on the specifics and how much a proposed new formula will resemble EdBuild’s recommendation.

“Senate and House members, with input from local district administrators, will discuss measures in a formula that will improve how Mississippi educates children, including an emphasis on career-tech, Advanced Placement and special needs programs,” he said.

House Speaker Philip Gunn was less descriptive when answering questions about his plans for school funding.

“We’re continuing to work on it,” Gunn said.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said he is “ready to go” in moving forward.

“We’re just going to pick and choose out of the (EdBuild) report and figure out what weights we’ll put in there,” Tollison said of the strategy.

He said while he did not yet know of any specific formula, the work EdBuild did makes it easier for lawmakers to run the numbers on different scenarios and come up with a formula that works.

“I talked to a group of superintendents (from around the state), and the money issue aside, they agree that we need a new framework and that the MAEP has kind of run its course,” Tollison said.

The move to change the formula comes after years of criticism of the MAEP 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 MAEP each year. The Legislature has fully funded the MAEP twice since its passage.

The 2018 legislative session begins on Jan. 2.