English language arts teacher Megan Scott instructs her students at Casey Elementary in Jackson about summarizing stories and identifying key points, Wednesday Feb. 15, 2023 Credit: Julia James/Mississippi Today

After a push this session to fully fund public schools, districts will receive $100 million outside of the regular school funding formula because lawmakers passed a bill they say aims to put more money in the classroom. 

While superintendents say they’re grateful for the additional funds, some are pushing back on the notion that the current funding formula doesn’t directly support students.

Senate leaders introduced a plan in early March to give an additional $181 million to public schools by slightly modifying the state’s public school funding formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), and fully funding the new version. 

The formula was established by the Legislature in 1997 and has been consistently underfunded every year since 2008. MAEP provides the state’s share of money for the basic needs of districts, such as teacher salaries, utilities, textbooks and transportation. Districts have broad discretion when it comes to spending the MAEP dollars, something school leaders say is necessary in order for each district to meet its unique needs. 

Despite the plan passing the Senate unanimously, House leadership refused to put more money into the formula, saying they believed it would be used for increased administrative spending and would not benefit students. Instead, House leaders wanted to direct additional funding into specific programs, like the capital improvements loan fund or an assistant teacher pay raise. 

“When our folks were calling their legislators repeatedly, House members were telling them ‘We want to fully fund the MAEP, everybody I know over here wants to fully fund the MAEP,’” said Nancy Loome, executive director of public school advocacy group The Parents’ Campaign. “It was Speaker (Philip) Gunn refusing to allow them to vote on a bill that would have fully funded the MAEP. If they had put a bill in front of House members like they did with senators, it absolutely would have passed.”

Neither proposal triumphed, with lawmakers eventually agreeing to give an additional $100 million to school districts outside of the funding formula with the only spending restriction that the money can’t be used to give raises to superintendents, assistant superintendents and principals. The additional funds will be distributed based on enrollment, similar to the funding formula. 

“This was a way to get a compromise,” Senate Education Chairman Dennis DeBar said on the Senate floor. “It’s almost the same effect as if it was in the (MAEP) formula.”

The total value of MAEP this year is $2.4 billion, a $38 million increase over last year. Both the $100 million compromise and the $240 million to fund last year’s teacher pay raise were left outside the formula. 

READ MORE: Lawmakers, debating MAEP full funding, have plenty of money to spend

Some officials and school leaders disagree with the idea the compromise is nearly the same as MAEP, since allocating the money this way bypasses the portion of MAEP that distributes money based on school need. 

“Every school district getting the same amount per pupil, there’s no equity in that,” said Todd Ivey, former chief operating officer at the Mississippi Department of Education. “That was one of the primary reasons the state went to MAEP 20+ years ago, to try to prevent an equity funding lawsuit.” 

“I would have preferred it to be put in the formula just because there’s some equity components in the formula that help out schools that maybe aren’t able to generate as much (local tax dollars) as others, accounting for longer bus routes in rural areas, students in poverty,” said Tyler Hansford, Superintendent of the Union Public School District. “But at the same time, I’m not going to complain about additional funding.” 

Robert Williams, superintendent of the Hattiesburg Public School District, said he didn’t have an opinion about how the funding was distributed, just that he was grateful to the Legislature for providing the additional money. While the exact total of how much extra each school district will get is not yet available, Williams said he hopes to hire additional school resource officers and continue to invest in counseling and social-emotional supports.

Other districts said the additional funding will save them from having to cut employees that were hired with federal pandemic relief dollars. Chris Chism, superintendent of the Pearl Public School District, said this one will be one focus area for him, the other to give the lowest-paid employees a raise to combat the impact of record inflation. Chism said increased legislative investment in public schools will continue to be critical to overcome these conditions. 

Toren Ballard, K-12 policy director for education policy organization Mississippi First, said he expects to see a more detailed conversation about revising the formula next session. 

“It seems like, at least in the House, in order to get more money for education the formula is going to have to be rewritten,” he said. 

Loome said she is “optimistic” about education funding next session. 

“I’m hoping that (House members) are having conversations right now with candidates for speaker and saying, ‘Fully funding our public schools is really important to us, it’s important to our communities,’” she said. 

Recent polling shows that full funding of MAEP is very popular, with 79% of respondents saying they support it in a recent Sienna College/Mississippi Today poll

Superintendent of the Kemper County School District Hilute Hudson said that while he would have liked to see full funding, he appreciates that the compromise struck this year gives schools some more money while also giving legislators more time to revisit the formula. 

He also pushed back on the notion that additional money put into the formula would have been used irresponsibly. 

“If you look across the state, (school leaders) are taking these funds and trying to put them to the best use for our students. It’s not a situation of trying to inflate salaries,” Hudson said. 

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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.