The Mississippi Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved two bills to change the state’s school funding formula and “fully fund” the new version, but the bills may face challenges in the House and from the governor.
The funding formula used to allocate money to public schools, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, 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.
In broad strokes, the proposed changes would change the amount some districts pay towards the formula and adjust the way inflation is calculated. Every school district except five (Carroll County, Coahoma County, Laurel, Holly Springs, and Wilkinson County) would receive more money than last year from the state under the new formula, but the state would make a one-time allocation to those five districts for the first year the new formula is enacted.
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Chickasaw County School District Superintendent John Ellison called the new plan “a step in the right direction.”
“We got so far from full funding, it was almost like ‘How are we ever going to get there?’ So to me this was kind of a meet in the middle,” he said. “It probably has lowered the ceiling some on what full funding of MAEP looks like, but at the same time, it’s given most of us an increase in funding for next year, so that’s always a good thing for us. The other positive, too, is if they change the formula to where it’s more likely to be fully funded, then we know what to bank on each year.”
The changes to the formula do not alter the calculation of the base student cost, or the amount of money that is necessary to “adequately” educate a student, which some advocates have lauded. The base student cost is recalculated every four years and receives an adjustment for inflation each year in the intervening years — this inflation adjustment is one of the two aspects of the formula that the Senate plan changes. Under the new plan, inflation will be calculated using a 20-year average instead of current inflation rates, and the amount of costs subject to the inflation adjustment will be reduced.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Dennis DeBar, R-Leaksville, said the changes in inflation calculation will provide more stability for both the Legislature and school districts. Since the year-to-year cost of full funding will fluctuate less with the shift to a 20-year average, it will be easier for the Legislature to anticipate how much fully funding MAEP will cost.
“By fully funding it, which is what districts are mostly going to be keen on, I think districts can work with fluctuations in actual inflation as long as we are fully funding it,” he told Mississippi Today.
The bill would also change the portion that must be covered locally. Under the current formula, there is a provision known as the “27% rule,” which states that no school district shall bear more than 27% of the cost of public education for its schools. The new proposal would alter the percentage to 29.5%. This change would slightly increase the contribution by wealthier districts, since their property taxes generate more funds and they are the districts who benefit from this cap.
DeBar said for full funding of MAEP to be possible, some districts need to be more honest about the level of local funding they already provide, since most school districts levy property taxes above the required amount.
“In any scenario that increases the 27% threshold, by any degree, even if it’s just 2.5%, what you’re saying is, those property-wealthy districts that were benefiting from this loophole are going to benefit a little less,” said Zahava Stadler of New America, a national think tank. “It frees up state money … to be sent to districts that actually need the aid.”
Stadler said while she sees this change as positive progress, the existence of the 27% rule is still very unusual nationally. She said most states only pay the portion of their formula that local districts cannot cover through property taxes, or guarantee to cover a much smaller portion of the cost.
DeBar said this revision of the formula is “the beginning,” and the formula should be reviewed for tweaks more often, possibly each time the base student cost is recalculated.
“It’s going to be hard to make changes to the formula if we’re not fully funding it upfront,” he said.
For school districts, the biggest impact of the funding increase will be the ability to avoid budget cuts or update neglected facilities.
Adrian Hammitte, superintendent of the Jefferson County School District, said this money will save his district from making cuts to protect new curriculum resources and allow him to address damages to buildings from severe weather events over the last few years.
“Those additional funds will help us to continue to make sure that students have a safe, warm, and welcoming school environment,” he said.
DeBar emphasized the work the Senate has done over the last three years to build relationships with the education community, including advocates, administrators, and teachers as a vital part of the success of these changes.
“I think that (the unanimous passage) shows the work we put into bringing this forward, having everybody on board, has paid off,” he said.
While the proposal may have passed the Senate unanimously, the governor and some House members have expressed frustration that the proposal is being brought forward relatively late in the session.
“Be very cautious of a last minute change in funding formula that seems to have unanimous support amongst Democrats in Senate and liberal activist groups,” Reeves tweeted. “Very very cautious.”
When asked about these concerns, DeBar said that he understands people are only now getting to look at the proposal and review it, but hopes they will engage with him on any concerns they have.
“Most, if not all, of us have campaigned on being supporters of education and fully funding MAEP, and this is the vehicle that we have before us,” he said. “Is the formula perfect at this point? Some may say no, but it’s an honest effort to begin the conversation.”