Gov. Tate Reeves, with his wife Elee Reeves, spoke to supporters at Stribling Equipment in Richland on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The views of the candidates for governor — Republican incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves and Democratic challenger Brandon Presley — are as different as night and day on fully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides the state’s share of the basics to operate local schools.

In response to questions from The Parents’ Campaign, a public education advocacy organization, Presley recently said: “I agree MAEP should be fully funded. I believe that Mississippi students deserve a world-class education, and that starts with fully funding public education and making sure that every classroom is safe and clean and has a great educator with modern resources. We don’t know the potential of our state because we’ve never funded our public schools enough to realize our potential.”

Throughout his tenure as governor and lieutenant governor, Reeves has placed obstacles to full funding. He has argued MAEP, which was adopted in 1997, is a flawed program and should be scrapped because it provides too much money for administration instead of the classroom.

“The reality is that the funding formula as it currently exists has encouraged and incentivized more and more spending on administration and not as much spending in the classroom,” Reeves said of the MAEP funding formula. “Whatever the mechanism is to get more money in the classroom, that’s what I’m going to support.”

But when the state Senate earlier this year introduced legislation that could have been a vehicle to address some of the problems that Reeves claimed existed within the funding formula, the governor opposed those efforts.

And before, when he was lieutenant governor, Reeves led an unsuccessful effort to repeal the MAEP and replace it with another school funding formula.

The proposal supported by Reeves allowed legislative leaders to determine how much local school districts needed to operate. Under MAEP, the amount of funding school districts need is determined by averaging how much money is spent by districts deemed to be adequate or average based on state rankings. Those average school districts that spend the most and those that spend the least are thrown out and not used in calculating the funding formula. But under state law, the formula is tilted toward discarding from the calculation more high spending districts than low sending districts.

The theory is that the MAEP funding formula ensures an adequate level of funding, if fully funded, instead of leaving it to legislative leaders to fund education at any level they deem appropriate.

Reeves also was a leader in 2015 of the successful effort to defeat ballot Initiative 42, which would have strengthened the state’s commitment to public education in the Mississippi Constitution making it more difficult for lawmakers to not fully fund the Adequate Education Program.

Surprisingly, Reeves has not always been opposed to fully funding MAEP. In 2011, Reeves, then state treasurer and a candidate for lieutenant governor, voiced support for full funding.

“It may take more than two legislative sessions, but yes, I do support full funding for MAEP,” Reeves told the Jackson Free Press at the time.

But as lieutenant governor and later as governor, Reeves never made the effort to fully fund MAEP, despite state surplus funds of about $4 billion going into the 2023 session alone.

In his first year as lieutenant governor after stating his goal to fully fund MAEP, the program was underfunded by about $260 million. The second year of Reeves’ tenure as lieutenant governor, it was underfunded by about $265 million.

MAEP has been underfunded a cumulative $2.97 billion during Reeves’ two terms as lieutenant governor and as his first term as governor draws to a close.

A significant portion of the Legislature has, like Reeves, opposed full funding. But based on polling, a significant portion of the electorate supports full funding.

In a Siena College/Mississippi Today poll of registered voters earlier this year, an overwhelming 79% said they favored fully funding MAEP, “the formula that sends state money to local schools for basic school needs.” Those basic school needs include, of course, teacher salaries.

By contrast, according to the poll that was conducted in March:

  • 75% favor expanding Medicaid to provide health care to low income families.
  • 71% support restoring the initiative that was ruled invalid by the state Supreme Court to allow voters to bypass the Legislature and place issues on the ballot.
  • 60% favor allowing new mothers who qualify for Medicaid while pregnant to remain on Medicaid for one year instead of two months.

Reeves is not the first politician to change his mind or not keep his commitment to MAEP funding. Since the program was fully enacted in 2003, it has been fully funded twice even though every governor since then has at some point voiced support for full funding.

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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.