Gov. Tate Reeves, center, speaks in 2020 of how he and House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, left, and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, right, are working on a deal about how to spend $1.2 billion in CARES Act funds. Although party mates, the three disagreed about who had spending authority over the CARES Act funds. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

If the Mississippi Legislature does not fully fund public education this session, it will not be because of a lack of money.

As fights in past years persisted about fully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the state formula that funds local school districts’ basic needs, an issue often has been whether there was enough money to accomplish the goal of full funding.

Money — or at least not having enough if it — is not the issue this year.

Thanks to an unprecedented spike in tax collections, the Legislature entered the 2023 session with an official revenue estimate that is $500 million more than the estimate used in the 2022 session to fund state government, including MAEP. And to top it off, revenue collections are another $524 million above the official estimate through February, seven months into the fiscal year.

READ MORE: Senate, Hosemann want to spend $181 million more to ‘fully fund’ public education in Mississippi

Many have called on House Speaker Philip Gunn to call a meeting of the Legislative Budget Committee to raise the estimate, giving legislators even more money to appropriate this year. As chair of the Legislative Budget Committee this year, Gunn has the sole authority to call the meeting to raise the estimate. Thus far Gunn, who has been an opponent of full funding of MAEP, has rejected those calls. But even if Gunn does not call a meeting to raise the estimate, legislators still will have half a billion dollars more to spend in the final days of this session than they had in 2022.

As the session winds down and legislative leaders meet behind closed doors to agree on a budget proposal to be voted on by the full Legislature, the issue of whether to fully fund MAEP is one of the key issues being debated and perhaps a major obstacle to a budget agreement. MAEP provides the state’s share of money for the basic needs of districts, such teacher salaries, utilities, textbooks and transportation. The MAEP formula provides a greater share of state funds to poor districts.

House Education Chair Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, said the issue in fully funding MAEP is not necessarily the money. He said he supports providing more funds to public schools, but not necessarily for placing more money in the MAEP.

“I am not for putting more money in it,” Bennett said, adding he would rather it be “earmarked” for specific education programs.

READ MORE: Bill to fully fund public education heads to House for consideration. Here’s what the changes would mean.

Bennett cited the $20 million the House provided for a salary increase for teacher assistants from $17,000 annually to $20,000. Instead of adopting the House plan for a teacher assistants pay raise, the Senate opted to propose an additional $181 million to fully fund MAEP for only the third time since 2003. Placing extra education money in MAEP would give the local school districts more discretion in how the funds are spent.

The Senate passed legislation to make changes to MAEP that lowered by about $80 million the amount needed to fully fund the program. After the changes, $181 million is needed to fully fund the program. And Senate leaders said the additional cost to maintain full funding in future years would be minimal.

Bennett said it is too late in the session to consider making major changes to MAEP.

“I am in favor of looking at the program,” Bennett said. “But it should begin in the summer and involve all the stakeholders.” He said the stakeholders should include the governor’s office, educators and legislators.

Senate Education Chair Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, said this week on Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast that he has been working with local education officials for about three years on the changes that the Senate approved to the MAEP. DeBar said he had heard throughout his legislative tenure, which began in 2012, that there were problems with the formula. He said the Senate plan, to a large extent, fixes those problems.

“This has been a three-year long process to rework the formula, to get it fully funded…working with educators,” DeBar said.

Under the revisions made in the Senate, DeBar said the MAEP funding levels would be more predictable and that it would be easier to keep it fully funded.

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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.