Speaker Philip Gunn, right, prepares for legislative session at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, March 22, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Responding to questions from members of the media recently about funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, asked for a show of hands of those who understood the school funding formula.

“Nobody really understands it. (School) superintendents don’t understand it,” Gunn said, making it clear his question was rhetorical. “We had a plan five or six years ago that was incredibly understandable.”

Gunn was referring to the plan put forward by him and then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. That plan was rejected by the Senate despite both Gunn and Reeves putting on a full-court press to pass it.

The fact of the matter is that there are many similarities between his failed plan and the MAEP.

Both are vehicles to provide the state’s share of funding to meet the needs of local school districts — needs like teacher salaries, utilities, custodial help, textbooks and other basic needs.

And both meet those needs by providing some amount of money on a per pupil basis.

The key difference is that the per pupil spending, known as the base student cost, was determined in the Gunn plan by the Legislature. Legislators could make that base student cost whatever they wanted it to be. The Legislature could lower or increase the base student cost each year based on their whim.

The ability of the Legislature to establish the base student cost is what makes the Gunn/Reeves plan so simple. Besides that simplicity, it also might appeal to Gunn and others because there is no way to underfund a formula that is not based on any objective criteria, but simply based on the thinking of legislators.

If there is no way to objectively determine what full funding is because full funding is whatever legislators say it is, then there is no way for the public to hold politicians accountable for not fully funding education.

Gunn was the primary reason full funding of MAEP was blocked during the recently completed 2023 session. He refused to put additional funds in a formula he referred to as a “black hole” and as confusing.

The 2023 session will be Gunn’s last regular session as he is not running for reelection. Taking him at his word that he does not understand MAEP after five terms in the House (three as speaker) and after serving as a local school board chair, here is one last effort to explain the formula to him.

First of all, based on the MAEP law, the state Department of Education determines the instructional, administrative, maintenance and ancillary costs for level 3 or adequate schools.

The MAEP base student cost is then ascertained by averaging the cost in each of those four areas — instructional, administrative, maintenance and ancillary — of educating a child in those adequate districts. But it is important to note those adequately performing districts that spend significantly more or less than other school systems are not used in developing the base student cost.

And in developing the all-important base student cost, the formula is weighted in favor of using school districts that spend less than in using school districts that spend more.

The formula also calls for every district to provide a portion of the MAEP base student cost. Districts are supposed to provide in local funds whichever is less of 28 mills (a mill is a taxing unit for property) or 27% of the base student cost. The state is supposed to provide the rest of the cost.

For whatever it is worth, nearly all school districts levy more than 28 mills.

The formula is calculated every four years. In the years between those recalculations, the formula is supposed to be adjusted based on a modest inflation factor.

When the Legislature enacted MAEP in 1997, the goal was to ensure that all districts have a base level of funding that theoretically would be enough to provide an adequate education. And here is perhaps the most important aspect of the formula: the state provides more funds for property poor districts than it does for affluent districts. But in helping those property poor districts, there was a commitment made in 1997 that those wealthier districts would not receive less funding under the new formula than under the old formula.

There is an argument that now, about 25 years after the formula was created, that the wealthier districts should be paying more of their own funds for the basic operation of their schools and thus freeing up more state funds for poor districts. The Senate wanted to have that debate in the 2023 session and then fully fund MAEP for the first time since 2007-2008.

Gunn prevented that debate from happening in the House. Apparently, he said, he did not understand the formula.

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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.