Fast-tracked school funding bill sparks questions, concerns

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Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

House Education Committee chair Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, discusses a new education funding bill on Monday.

Even though many questions linger about a potential rewrite of Mississippi’s school funding formula, the House is moving quickly to push the bill through the legislative process.

Legislators, educators and education advocates met in a crowded room at the Capitol Monday afternoon to discuss House Bill 957, titled the “Mississippi Uniform Per Student Funding Formula Act of 2018.”

The bill, authored by Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, would do away with the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) and replace it with a new, weighted formula that provides extra funding to specific types of students.

The fact that Gunn filed his 354-page bill late last Thursday combined with a House Appropriations Committee vote set for 10 a.m. Tuesday has prompted criticism from Democrats who say they need more time to vet what’s in the bill.

Under the proposed formula, enrollment figures, not average daily attendance, will determine how much money each school district gets. There is a $4,800 base cost for every student in grades K-12, plus additional money, or weights, added depending on students’ individual characteristics.

These weights include students with a special education diagnosis, low-income status, gifted students and age, with high schoolers receiving a total of $6,240. Students receiving special education services would receive weighted funding, anywhere from $7,680 to $8,160 depending on the diagnosis.

In addition, each student in  rural district would receive an additional 10 percent from the state.

R.L. Nave, Mississippi Today

Rep. John Read, left, and Rep. Richard Bennett, chairmen of the House Appropriations and Education Committees, respectively, stand at the lectern before their committees meet to discuss a new school funding formula.

House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, said during Monday’s meeting that there would be an initial “hold harmless provision,” meaning any district that would lose money under the new bill’s funding formula would retain their current appropriation for two years.

The bill will allow each district to have autonomy on how to spend the money it receives, he said, as long as it follows any state or federal laws or regulations that requires funds to be spent in certain programs.

“They know what their needs are better than we do as legislators,” Bennett said. “With a student focused funding formula districts should be provided the full flexibility to spend in a way they deem best for their students.”

The bill would provide an additional $107 million in funding over a seven-year period — Bennett said he is unsure where those dollars would come from— although that figure is less than it would be if the MAEP formula were fully funded.

Bennett said that fully funding at MAEP level is “not a realistic goal.”

“MAEP is an unrealistic formula,” he said.  “It’s a formula that the Democrats came up with but were not able to fund it … the money, it’s not realistic. It’s just not going to be funded.”

Democratic Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory bristled against that statement, telling reporters after the meeting that the passage of MAEP was a bipartisan effort. He later provided reporters with a copy of the vote total from April 1997 and circled the names of Republicans who voted in favor of establishing MAEP.

Bryan, who was among the loudest critics of what he characterized as a lack of transparency on the funding rewrite bill, likened HB 957 to a vampire because “it cannot stand the light of day.”

Bryan was instrumental in getting the MAEP law passed in 1997 and said it lays out exactly how much money a district needs to operate.

“The fact that the Legislature doesn’t fund it does not change the fact that’s how much money they need,” he said.

The bill includes several of the recommendations New Jersey-based nonprofit EdBuild presented to the Legislature last January, but not all of them. When Democratic Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, asked if it would be prudent to give the public and legislators a week to mull over the contents of the bill, Bennett responded that it was best to move forward.

“I think this bill has been out here, EdBuild’s been out here for a year,” he said. “We had that same argument last year and we didn’t take it up because of that argument.”

“This bill simply did not exist until Thursday,” Bryan said. “There’s not been a single public meeting, not a single open discussion of how this formula was being put together from the word go.”

The bill states that the legislation would go into effect upon passage, but Bennett told reporters later that it would not go into effect until 2019.