A new analysis of state-by-state spending on public education found that a high school senior in Mississippi received about $33,000 less in state funding than the national average over the course of his or her public education.
Efforts to rework the state’s public education funding formula died in this year’s legislative session, but debate over appropriate school funding levels continues —and the analysis provides new insight for evaluating state spending levels.
The analysis — based on U.S. Department of Education data through the 2015-16 school year — was done by Steve Suitts, a former chief strategist of the political action committee that unsuccessfully pushed for full funding of Mississippi’s school funding formula under Proposition 42 in 2015. Suitts previously worked at the Southern Education Foundation for almost 20 years and now is an adjunct professor and researcher at Emory University in Atlanta.
Since 1997, the state has used the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) to determine public school funding. The Legislature, under the leadership of both Democrats and Republicans, has fully funded MAEP only twice since then, and last fall the Mississippi Supreme Court decided the state is not required to do so.
In his analysis, Suitts aggregated data from U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics to list each state’s per pupil expenditure over a 12-year period. Suitts did not consider the amounts spent on kindergarten as that is not uniformly part of all state public education programs.
Looking at 2003 to 2015, the latest data available for all the states, Suitts found that Mississippi spent $33,355 less than the national average of $137,467. This figure is how much a state spent during a 12-year period on a single student who was a senior in the 2015 school year.
Mississippi is not at the bottom, but the $104,112 spent per student in this 12-year period is lowest of its contiguous states (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee).
“It is in every state’s power to decide what gets spent on public education,” Suitts said. “Mississippi is a state that has less wealth than other states but, it’s (the Legislature’s) decision as to whether to spend money on public education or spend it on other things or provide tax abatements or breaks to others that would lower the amount of money available for public education.”
For the past two years, legislative leaders have proposed revamping the way education is funded by moving to a weighted formula that uses a base cost and adds funds to particular categories of students. The Legislature failed to produce successful education funding reform legislation during both the 2017 and 2018 regular sessions.
Backers of HB 957 calculated that the new formula when fully phased in would add $108 million to public education funding, but where those funds would come from was not explained. Proponents of fully funding the MAEP formula released their own analysis claiming those projections are inaccurate.
The Parents’ Campaign, a public school advocacy group that has long championed full funding of MAEP, put out district-by-district numbers comparing the new formula’s funding level to full MAEP funding in fiscal year 2025, the year the new formula would have been fully phased in. That spreadsheet shows every single district losing money, and a total loss of $292 million statewide.
New Jersey-based consultant EdBuild also released numbers early in the legislative session which showed how much each school district was expected to gain based on the formula in HB 957.
When the bill died in early March, the Republican leadership decried the failure to pass the bill as a lost opportunity for Mississippi students. Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said senators who voted against the legislation “failed to do what is best for the students.”
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves had similar comments, telling reporters immediately after the bill died that MAEP is inequitable and unfair.
“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,” Reeves said.
Neither Gunn nor Reeves responded to requests for comment on the analysis.
Suitts said that nationwide, states have focused on creating funding formulas that are both adequate and equitable since the middle of the 20th century.
“The truth is you can have equitable formulas, but if it’s inadequate funding then it’s inequitable for everyone,” Suitts said. “So in many ways that’s why adequate funding is the baseline. You’ve got to have adequate funding and once you get to that point, the second question is how to you distribute those funds according to student needs?”
Several northern states top the list in terms of their per pupil expenditure — Vermont, Alaska, Connecticut, New Jersey and the District of Columbia each spent more than $200,000 per student during the 12-year period — which is a common correlation for states with a higher per-capita income.
“I hope it’s common knowledge everywhere now that certainly in the 21st century, unless you have a good public education system you’re not going to have a great economy,” Suitts said. “If funds are steadily invested over life of a child, that child’s education, generally you have an educated population.”
Click here for the full state-by-state spending numbers.
A new poll out this week finds that a majority of Mississippians say they are willing to put their own money in to help fix this. The online survey by NBC News/SurveyMonkey in collaboration with Mississippi Today found that that 60 percent of Mississippians would be willing to pay higher taxes to improve public schools.