For 56 days of the 90-day 2023 session of the Mississippi Legislature and before then in the pre-session budgeting work, no one was speaking publicly or seriously about the possibility of fully funding public education.
But in a remarkable move on the 57th day, Senate Education Chair Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, announced his goal for the 2023 session is to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides the state’s share of the basics to operate local school districts.
Such talk had not occurred in earnest since the 2000s when Democrats still controlled the Mississippi House. At that time, it was those House Democrats calling for MAEP to be fully funded or at least provided additional funding. And it was Republican leaders of the Senate and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour opposing full funding.
This time around it could be the House leadership — in the form of Republican Speaker Philip Gunn — opposing full funding. Gunn has long been an opponent of fully funding MAEP, and the issue of full funding could again become a contentious one just as it used to be in earlier days.
But make no mistake about it: DeBar would not have uttered the words “full funding” without the blessings of Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate. DeBar is loyal to Hosemann.
DeBar made his pronouncement with the caveat that the MAEP formula would need to be “tweaked” as part of the full funding effort. Those tweaks could theoretically result in the need for less money to fully fund MAEP. But education advocates have generally trusted DeBar to make decisions they believe are in the best interest of public schools.
MAEP was passed by the Legislature in 1997 over a gubernatorial veto and was phased in over six years. It was fully funded during the phase-in period and during the 2003 session – the first of full enactment.
It was not fully funded again until 2007, when Barbour acquiesced to House Democrats and agreed to full funding. Interestingly, Barbour and others campaigned for election later that year proclaiming the fight over full funding of MAEP was over. It would take only a minimal increase each year to maintain full funding. And it was fully funded again in the 2008 session, but Barbour cut MAEP funding later that year and then reduced funding for most agencies because of the so-called Great Recession that resulted in a dramatic slowdown in state tax collections.
MAEP has not been fully funded again since then. But it has not been from lack of effort from those outside of the Legislature.
Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who was one of the architects of the Adequate Education Program that was enacted during his tenure as lieutenant governor, sued the Legislature in 2015 on behalf of a group of school districts saying that the law mandated full funding.
The Supreme Court, in a word salad ruling, said just because the law said the Legislature “shall” fully fund MAEP did not mean that the Legislature, well, shall fully fund MAEP.
And about that time a group of education advocates gathered the signatures to place on the ballot an initiative that would have strengthened the state’s commitment to public education, presumably putting more pressure on the Legislature to provide full funding. That proposal was narrowly defeated at the polls in 2015, thanks in part to the fact that the Legislature put an alternative proposal on the ballot to confuse voters.
After that 2015 defeat, Gunn and then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves went to work to scrap the MAEP funding formula. With both of the chambers’ presiding officers supporting the effort, most believed MAEP’s days were numbered.
But lo and behold, the effort of Reeves and Gunn failed.
In the ensuing 2019 election, no candidate, including Reeves who won the gubernatorial election nor Gunn’s House Republican candidates, ran on the issue of repealing MAEP.
On the other hand, there also was not much talk about the full funding of MAEP, which provides a base level of state funding for all school districts with more funding for less affluent or property poor districts. Despite unprecedented revenue growth, MAEP was underfunded $273 million during the 2022 session and has been underfunded $3.3 billion since 2008.
But going into the 2023 elections and with Gunn serving as a lame duck speaker not running for reelection, talk of full funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program has resurfaced.
That will make some happy and others mad, but it will continue a battle that has been ongoing for decades.