House Speaker Philip Gunn details a plan to reassess the current public education formula. Behind Gunn, from left, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Sen. Buck Clarke and Rep. John Read.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves seemed a little more on edge than normal when he answered questions in March 2018 after the Senate where he presides surprisingly rejected his effort to replace the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program provides the bulk of state funding for the basic operation of local school districts. In the 2017 and 2018 sessions, Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn made the rewrite of the school funding formula one of their top legislative priorities.

On that March day Reeves blamed the media for the failure of his MAEP rewrite attempt.

“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.”

He also singled out the Tupelo and Lee County school districts as he added, “Since the (new school funding ) plan didn’t pass, the likelihood that they’re going to see less money next year than they’re seeing this year is pretty high.”

History shows that no school district, including Tupelo and Lee County, received less funding that year.

Bobby Harrison

As Reeves campaigns for the office of governor this year, he seldom talks about what was one of his top legislative priorities for two years – the rewrite of the MAEP – and whether he would renew that effort as the state’s chief executive.

In response to a recent question about a possible rewrite, Reeves said, “I believe that the best way for every kid to get a quality education in Mississippi is to have a quality teacher in every classroom. The best way to have a quality teacher in every classroom is to spend more money in the classroom and less money in the district office. The reality is that the funding formula as it currently exists has encouraged and incentivized more and more spending on administration and not as much spending in the classroom. Whatever the mechanism is to get more money in the classroom, that’s what I’m going to support.”

Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, who is running against Reeves this year for the office of governor, also has not made MAEP an issue. But in response to questions, the Hood campaign said he supports full funding of the existing Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

Reeves, Gunn and others who have touted a rewrite of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, considered landmark legislation nationally in education circles when it passed in 1997, argue that it allows too much money to be spent on administrative needs. Education groups who have touted MAEP have conceded that it might need some updates, but pointed out the new funding formula touted by Reeves and Gunn also did not have a mechanism to limit administrative spending.

The MAEP supporters said they opposed the new formula for basically three reasons:

  • It would provide less funding for local school districts.
  • It did not have a built-in growth or inflation factor.
  • It gave legislators the discretion to determine what is adequate funding.

The MAEP funding level is determined by calculating how much it costs to operate an efficiently run “C” or adequate school. That formula puts pressure on legislators to provide funding for education.

Legislators, at least many, do not like that pressure.

Besides saying that the state could not afford to fund MAEP, the proponents of the new formula said it also more specifically designates funds to schools based on their needs – such as the number of gifted or special needs children in a school district.

But many education groups did not buy that argument, leading to that surprising bipartisan result in Reeves’ Senate in 2018.

Surprisingly, on the election trail, the rewrite of the formula has not been talked about much even though it was perhaps the biggest issue for two of the past four sessions of the Legislature. In addition, the need to fully fund MAEP, which has been a major issue in past elections, has been talked about less this year. MAEP has been fully funded only twice since it was fully enacted in 2003.

Interestingly, in past campaigns most all politicians, Republicans and Democrats, have run at one time or another on the promise to fully fund MAEP. Haley Barbour and Phil Bryant both promised full funding in their respective 2007 campaigns for governor and lieutenant governor.

And as late as 2015, Reeves said he supported full funding to remove any excuse from school districts for not performing.

About one year later Reeves and Gunn were holding a news conference to announce their intent to replace the education funding formula. In the meantime MAEP has not been fully funded since the 2007 session and has been underfunded more than $2.5 billion since then.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.