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Senate Republican leaders shocked the state on Feb. 28 when they announced their intention to fully fund Mississippi’s public school formula for just the third time since 2003.
Just a few minutes before the Senate was set to vote on the proposal on March 7, Gov. Tate Reeves took to Twitter with an eyebrow-raising warning to lawmakers.
“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. Very very cautious,” Reeves tweeted, followed by his office sending his tweet to reporters as an official press statement. “Instead of funneling more money to the district offices — where our kids won’t see it — why not another teacher pay raise? Put it in the classroom!”
A little more than an hour later, the supermajority in the Republican state Senate, apparently unfazed by their Republican leader’s words, voted unanimously to do the exact opposite of what Reeves had warned. Every single Republican and Democrat in the Senate voted with virtually no debate to tweak the education funding formula and fully fund public schools.
The Senate plan, which would help local school districts cover basic costs such as supplies, building costs and, yes, teacher salaries, would require the state send an additional $181 million to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program per year. The proposal comes as Mississippi sits on a record revenue surplus of $3.9 billion, and more than $1 billion of that is recurring.
The politics of opposing full funding of public education during an election year are questionable at best. And even more problematic for Reeves is that his unprompted Twitter take dredged up his controversial record on one of the single biggest political issues of any campaign.
Reeves, at least on this issue, appears wildly out of step with Mississippi voters, including his Republican base. A new Siena College/Mississippi Today poll released today shows that a whopping 79% of Mississippians — including 73% of Republicans surveyed — believe lawmakers should fully fund public schools this session.
Democrat Brandon Presley, who is getting all sorts of statewide and national attention for his political upside against Reeves in the governor’s race later this year, pounced immediately. As one longtime political operative put it in a text message later in the day: “I hear they’re having a Field Day in Nettleton today,” referencing Presley’s hometown.
“I commend both Republicans and Democrats in the state Senate for coming together across party lines unanimously to better fund our schools,” Presley tweeted shortly after the Senate vote. “As usual, Tate Reeves is now attacking this bipartisan effort and playing politics once again. Tate Reeves has shown over and over he cares more about HIS political career than OUR students. He won’t lead. As governor, I will.”
Reeves’ tweet leads astute political observers to recall Reeves’ many black eyes from his action (or inaction) on public education related issues. If you’re interested in taking a stroll down memory lane, here are just a few of those moments:
- In eight years as lieutenant governor, when he had deep influence over the state budget, Reeves raised teacher pay just two times — both during election years. And those pay raises were so marginal that education groups and teachers publicly panned them with descriptors like “a joke”; “insufficient”; “a slap in the face’: “insulting”; and “another election-year-timed symbolic gesture.” His March 7 tweet suggested current lawmakers consider another teacher pay raise. Needless to say, that wasn’t received too well.
- The governor highlighted in his March 7 tweet that the Senate full funding effort was “last minute.” But no one, seemingly, has forgotten about perhaps the most notorious “last minute” leader in modern political history regarding education-related moves. When Reeves was lieutenant governor, he famously sneaked $2 million for private school vouchers into an unrelated appropriations bill in the 2019 election year, drawing the broad ire of every single public education group.
- In 2017, Reeves and other legislative leaders tried and failed to rewrite the state’s public education funding formula. A majority of Republican senators shot down Reeves’ plan in broad daylight. Shortly after the Senate vote, Reeves went sour grapes and blamed reporters: “I know you’re all smiling big today. You worked really hard to kill this, and you were very, very successful at doing so.” Reeves has rarely publicly discussed the failed rewrite effort since then, and he has neither tried nor proposed another rewrite effort.
- In Reeves’ last five years as lieutenant governor, the Legislature underfunded Mississippi Adequate Education Program by $1.06 billion, according to data compiled by The Parents’ Campaign. Since 2008 under the same measures, MAEP has gone underfunded by $3.35 billion, including a worst-ever stretch from 2012-2020 — the eight years Reeves served as leader of the Senate.
- From 2015-2019, his last four years as lieutenant governor, Mississippi’s public education budgets were cut by $173.5 million ($102 million cut to Institutions of Higher Learning, $40 million cut to K-12 education, $32 million to community colleges).
- Several teacher loan forgiveness programs in 2016 received budget cuts so extreme from the Reeves-led Legislature that they had to stop forgiving loans for teachers. “It really got me thinking, ‘Well, my state’s not really on my side here,’” a north Mississippi teacher said.
- And how soon we forget one of the biggest political blunders of modern politics. In 2019, late in his heated governor’s race with Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, Reeves released a TV ad touting his plan to raise public school teacher pay. There was just one problem: most of the ad was filmed inside a private school and featured several private school teachers. That private school, then a little-known entity, is now one of the most familiar schools in the state for all the wrong reasons. Reeves filmed the ad at New Summit School, owned by welfare and education fraudsters Nancy and Zach New, who were 2019 campaign donors of Reeves.
It remains unclear what Reeves thought he was doing March 7 with his social media warning to lawmakers and his effective trolling of the Senate’s full funding proposal.
The Senate plan now moves to the House, where Republican leaders there have to decide whether to heed Reeves’ warning. But legislative Democrats, like Presley, are already using the moment to apply pressure.
“This appropriation would be less than 5% of our nearly $4 billion surplus and he still doesn’t want to spend it on Mississippi’s public school students,” said Rep. Robert Johnson, the House Democratic leader. “If we’re in the best financial shape in our state’s history, as the governor so often likes to remind us, why should we have to choose? If he isn’t interested in investing in public education now, will he ever be?”
Johnson continued: “If House Republicans and Tate Reeves think blocking $181 million from going into our public schools while they crow about a $4 billion surplus is a winning strategy going into an election year, then good luck to them.”
But before too long, we’ll get some clarity on how Reeves’ questionable take — effectively, “I know we have more money than we’ve ever had, but let’s actually not send additional funding to our consistently struggling public schools during this major election year” — will affect his effort to win one more term in the Governor’s Mansion.