A Jackson Public Schools student attends class on his laptop from a classroom at the Capitol Street campus of the Boys and Girls Club on Sept. 21, 2020. Normally an afterschool program, the Club began opening at 7 a.m. and facilitating distance learning for the children of working families after schools closed their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Anna Wolfe

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dennis DeBar, R-Leaksville, announced in a committee meeting Thursday that he wants to fully fund public schools this session through “minor” changes to the state’s funding formula.

The funding formula used to allocate money to public schools, otherwise known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), was established by the Legislature in 1997 and has been consistently underfunded every year since 2008. MAEP funding provides the state’s share of funding for the basic operations of local school districts, ranging from teacher salaries to textbooks to utilities.

The Tuesday announcement from DeBar came as a surprise to some political observers since MAEP has been fully funded just twice since it was fully enacted in 2003. And it has been the subject of intense public, legal and legislative debate about the actual amount of money public schools need.

According to the Parents’ Campaign, an education advocacy group, MAEP was underfunded by $273 million for the 2022-23 school year and by $3.3 billion since 2008. But still, it is generally the largest state expenditure each year. In the 2022 session, the Legislature appropriated $2.1 billion for MAEP.

DeBar made the comment during the Senate Education Committee’s discussion of House Bill 1369, which would have adjusted the method of calculating the number of students in a school district for the purposes of school funding. The bill would switch to counting based on the number of students enrolled in the district instead of measuring student attendance.

The bill also contains other sections of the law that established the MAEP program, creating the possibility of modification to other aspects of the law before the session ends. The specific changes to the funding formula have not yet been introduced and most likely will not be finalized until the end of the session, when House and Senate leaders meet in conference committees to negotiate differences.

“We’re bringing forth these code sections with the goal in mind to make some minor technical changes to the MAEP formula itself,” DeBar said. “The goal is to fully fund MAEP this year, and this is our vehicle to make it happen.”

The MAEP has consistently been the subject of fierce legislative debate. In the 2010s, both then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who is now governor, and House Speaker Philip Gunn proposed scrapping MAEP for a new formula. They argued MAEP was too expensive to fully fund. Others argued that the equity funding features of MAEP have helped less affluent districts by providing additional state funds for them, and that the goal should be to amend the formula and fully fund it. The proposal to scrap MAEP passed the House, but was surprisingly defeated in the Senate. It marks a rare instance where a proposal endorsed by both presiding officers was defeated.

Several Mississippi advocacy groups tried in 2015 to let voters take matters into their own hands through the ballot initiative process, proposing a vote on forcing lawmakers to fully fund MAEP each year. But before voters were given a chance to decide at the ballot boxes, lawmakers for the first time introduced an alternative initiative to go on the same ballot. The original initiative failed at the polls after much politicking and contentious public debate.

Efforts to fully fund the formula this legislative session come as the state is experiencing record revenue growth with a surplus heading into the 2023 session of nearly $4 billion, thanks in part to the economy being spurred by millions in federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Education advocates have said they are pleased by the move to fully fund MAEP, but are waiting to see what the changes to the funding formula are.

“We have trusted (Sen. DeBar) and he has proven himself to be trustworthy,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents’ Campaign. “Our expectation is that it’s not going to be anything that would be damaging to public schools, but we’re going to wait and see.”

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.

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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.