In a surprise 27-21 vote Thursday, the Senate turned back efforts to rewrite the state’s public education funding formula.
The procedural vote to send the bill back to committee had the practical effect of killing the legislative attempt to revise school funding – a goal of Republican leaders for the last two legislative sessions.
Senators buzzed among themselves shortly after the vote, with many expressing looks of shock. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, a main backer of the bill , expressed frustration in an interview with reporters following the vote.
“I know you’re all smiling big today,” Reeves said to reporters. “You worked really hard to kill this, and you were very, very successful at doing so.”
“The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of kids across Mississippi who are losers today,” Reeves continued. “There are a lot of kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds that were going to be funded at a higher level than they’re currently getting funded.”
House Bill 957 would have replaced the Mississippi Adequate Education Formula with a new, weighted formula that would provide a base $4,800 amount per student. Districts would receive additional dollars based on specific student characteristics such as English language learners, low income students, and high school students.
Reeves pointed to what he said was inequity in MAEP and said it was unfair that districts across the state receive very different amounts of money for the same types of students.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or even a legislator, to figure out that that ain’t fair and that ain’t right,” Reeves said.
The bill was taken up on the regular calendar Thursday, less than a week before the deadline to pass the bill – a signal Reeves believed there were enough votes to pass it.
In a meeting with reporters after the Senate adjourned, Education Committee chairman Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said he was disappointed with what happened and stuck to familiar talking points that the bill would have been equitable for districts.
Tollison said Senate leadership thought they had the votes to pass the bill before they brought it up, but now, “that bill is dead.”
After about an hour of floor debate on the merits of the bill, Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, introduced a motion to recommit the bill to committee for further study and debate. That vote passed 27-21, which included eight Republicans and all Democrats. Four Republicans did not vote on that motion.
Because the committee deadline had passed, the move effectively killed the bill.
“The fact is there were 27 senators — all of the Democrats — who voted to say they didn’t want to spend $108 million more on K-12 funding” Reeves said, referring to an amount leaders said would be spent on the new formula when it was fully-implemented, although where those millions would come from was never determined.
Bryan, one of the authors of the current school formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), had been a loud critic of the new proposed formula.
Public school advocates argued that the Legislature had not made a commitment to fully funding the MAEP so it was impossible to determine if that formula provided appropriate public school funding. And they charged that the new formula would result in less funding for public education once it was fully implemented in 2025.
Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown, who voted to recommit the bill had this to say: “I think there needs to be a simpler formula, but the leaders of the districts and the people I represent overwhelming opposed the plan. I’m here to vote the will of my district.”
Sen. Walter Michel, R-Ridgeland, who voted to recommit the bill, said, “Neither of my school districts were in favor of the legislation. They didn’t feel it was best for them.”
Michel added: “I spoke with mayors in my district who weren’t in favor of it. Didn’t get a single phone call from anyone asking me to vote in favor of it. All the feedback I got from my constituents were opposing it.”
Michel also had concerns about the data available to legislators about the impact of the rewrite on individual districts.
“We were getting confusing numbers,” he said. “We were getting two sets of numbers. One was showing how great it would be, others showing it might not be so good for that district. I didn’t have anyone outwardly in favor of it in my district.”
Many components of the bill came from the recommendations of EdBuild, a New Jersey nonprofit consultant hired by the legislative leadership in late 2016.
The bill contained a two-year “hold harmless” provision, where districts would be funded at the same amount as the current fiscal year for the next two years, and some could see slight increases in funding corresponding with an increase in student enrollment.
One major question about the bill was whether funds currently going to education programs but funded outside of the MAEP formula would be covered by the new formula – and whether schools will truly get more money.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, the original author of HB 957, said the Senate “missed the opportunity to provide our school children a better funding mechanism.”
“Those senators who did not support the legislation failed to do what is best for the students,” Gunn said. “They let the politics of public education get in the way of our students. We can argue about the dollar amount all day long, but no one can refute that this was a better way to fund education.”
Here is the vote by which the Senate voted to recommit the bill to the Education Committee:
Yeas (27): Barnett, Blackmon, Blount, Browning, Bryan, Butler, Carmichael, Dawkins,
DeBar, Dearing, Frazier, Gollott, Hopson, Horhn, Jackson R. (11th), Jackson S. (32nd),
Jolly, Jordan, McMahan, Michel, Norwood, Seymour, Simmons D. T. (12th), Simmons
W. (13th), Turner-Ford, Wilemon, Witherspoon.
Nays (21): Blackwell, Branning, Burton, Carter, Caughman, Chassaniol, Clarke,
Fillingane, Harkins, Hill, Hudson, Massey, McDaniel, Parker, Parks, Polk, Tollison,
Watson, Whaley, Wiggins, Younger.
Absent or not voting (4): Doty, Jackson G. (15th), Kirby, Moran.
Contributing: Adam Ganucheau