In his first defense of a major schools bill, newly appointed House Education Chairman Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, stuck close to talking points that a new education funding formula would be simpler and more fair for school children.
Despite numerous questions and concerns from Democrats and a surprising number of no votes from Bennett’s fellow Republicans, the House voted Wednesday evening to dismantle Mississippi’s current education funding formula and replace it with their own version.
The House voted 66 to 54 for House Bill 957, titled the Mississippi Uniform Per Student Funding Formula Act of 2018. The vote was mostly along party lines, with 10 Republicans voting against the legislation because the school districts they represent would lose a significant amount of funding once the new formula is fully implemented.
Rep. Chris Johnson, a Republican freshman from Hattiesburg, said he voted against the bill because he didn’t feel comfortable enough with the numbers to know how it would affect his district.
He also said his superintendents had concerns, some but not all of which had been addressed.
One of those concerns was language in the bill saying 100 percent of the base student cost for students participating in dual enrollment would go to the community college or university where they were taking courses. This was fixed in an amendment passed on the House floor Wednesday that removed the lines of the bill that stated all funds go to the community college.
“Let me say I’m very much in favor of a new formula that’s transparent and equitable, and my superintendents would like to see a clearer, more transparent formula as well,” Johnson said.
Rep. Karl Oliver, R-Winona, voted against the bill because Montgomery County, which he represents, stands to lose the most money out of all the districts.
“The way its potentially set up, and I know these are just estimates, but the way it’s potentially set up doesn’t favor my district,” Oliver said. “It’s pretty simple.”
Authored by Speaker Philip Gunn, the bill replaces the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) with a weighted formula that assigns a base cost and assigns extra, weighted funds based on specific student characteristics.
The $4,800 base cost is for every student in grades K-12. Districts receive additional money, called weights, for 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 in tiers, anywhere from $7,680 to $8,160 depending on the diagnosis.
The bill also contains a provision under which school districts that would lose money under the new formula would not lose those funds for two years.
“The current funding formula was written almost two decades ago and has not kept up with the needs of the classroom of the 21st Century,” Gunn said. “We are moving to a student-centered funding formula.”
Gunn said the House worked with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and the Senate to craft the bill. Reeves’ office did not respond when asked if the Senate was involved with the legislation.
Democrats unsuccessfully offered 17 amendments to the bill, which pushed debate in the House to four hours.
Bennett explained the bill to members, but could not answer any questions about the state’s current education funding formula.
“I have not studied or looked at MAEP and I do not want to pretend to even understand it. I don’t think many people do,” Bennett said.
Democrats argued that many facets of the new formula are unfair and need tweaking before the bill is passed. Many took issue with the 27 percent rule, a provision in the current formula that allows property-wealthy districts across the state to keep $120 million in state funds they would otherwise have to raise locally.
In response, Bennett repeated what he has told lawmakers all week — he is open to studying the rule down the road, but it’s unfair to penalize wealthy districts and removing it all at once would be “devastating.” He reminded legislators that the rule is part of the funding Mississippi uses already and “MAEP was not a fair formula by any stretch of the imagination.”
Gunn noted that the bill is a work-in-progress and will be studied over the next several years, but that Democrats, who held the House majority at the time, implemented the 27 percent rule. Plus, Gunn said taking the rule away would mean wealthy districts, like the one he represents in Clinton, would have to raise taxes.
“I think part of it, right now, would result in some tax increases which obviously we (Republicans) try to avoid so I don’t know if it’s just as simple as saying we’re going to scrap it,” Gunn told reporters.
Reps. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez and Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson both tried to recommit the bill for further discussion, but their motions failed.
Rep. Willie Perkins, D-Greenwood urged his colleagues to think about the importance of the bill, telling his peers “You are going to get a chance to put your blueprint on funding education.”
“Why the rush? This is a bill that is going to make a significant change in the way that we fund education,” Perkins said.
Democratic Rep. Jay Hughes of Oxford also highlighted the rush, noting that the bill was filed on Jan. 11. Bennett said the recommendations have been “out there a while,” so the contents of the bill should not be a surprise.
“You mention that this has been out there specifically for a year but I’d like to add specifically, Mr. Chairman, last Thursday evening was the first time I as a member of the House got to see the 354-page bill,” Hughes told Bennett.
Responding to critics who questioned whether House leaders met with enough superintendents around the state before crafting the legislation, Gunn said he could recall meeting with superintendents in his office over two days and held several meetings outside his office. In addition, he said the EdBuild consultants held a statewide listening tour that some superintendents attended.
“You’ve got a 139 districts of the state. I would say we met with 10 percent of that — 13 or so, I think is a good cross sampling,” Gunn said.
Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, pointed out that the $4,800 base amount does not account for inflation and “there is nothing in this bill that going to ensure this body will come back and make an adjustment to base student cost.”
Multiple Democrats filed amendments to change that in some way, but none passed.
Members also stressed their concern with the way low-income students are captured in the formula. The bill uses census figures, which opponents say is not a correct, real-time figure and omits many students. The MAEP uses the amount of students on free-and-reduced lunch to calculate poverty.
“This is a once-in-a-generation vote, which means that a vote on education funding only comes around every 25, 30 years,” Clark said. “So don’t you think it’s important that we get it right?”