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Mississippi Legislature will likely tackle rewrite of education funding formula

PAINFUL EQUATION: The Mississippi Adequate Education Program funding calculation is not exactly easy to figure. Photo illustration by Steve Wilson

All sides agree that a new education funding formula proposal will likely be forthcoming from this year's session of the Mississippi Legislature.

There's just no idea what form it will take after no bill was forthcoming in last year's session. The Legislature's Republican leadership has said repeatedly it wants to replace the two decades old Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which has only been fully funded twice.

UPWARD: State education spending on K-12 and higher education rose substantially from 1996 to 2006. Graph by Steve Wilson

At a forum at Millsaps College on November 10, state Sen. David Blount (D-Jackson) said the reason why a bill was never introduced was due to concerns by lawmakers over how much the formula would ultimately cost and how it'd affect their local school district and local property tax rates. Blount said no answers were forthcoming on those important questions.

"These are basic questions that every member of the Legislature, regardless of their party affiliation, wants to know before they vote," Blount said. "That has never been provided and no one should vote on anything until they can answer those basic questions."

He also blasted the lack of transparency with the funding formula discussions that were made without public input. The Legislature kept details of its contract secret with EdBuild until leadership reversed course and released it.

Sanford Johnson, the deputy director of advocacy at Mississippi First, said at Millsaps that his organization was pleased with the ideas submitted by EdBuild.

He said the reason why no funding formula bill appeared was controversy over the 27 percent rule, which governs the amount of local contribution from property taxes that individual school districts have to raise. Mississippi school districts receive funding from two sources: state contributions from the MAEP and other state funds and local property taxes.

PEAKS AND VALLEYS An economic downturn in the 2009 period contributed to a deep valley in state education spending. Graph by Steve Wilson

Under present law, no school district has to pay for more than 27 percent of the minimum calculated cost of public education. The expected property tax contribution of every district is 28 mills (2.8 percent of a home's assessed value for tax purposes) and if that value exceeds 27 percent of the total funding for the district, the formula subtracts 27 percent, which is the lesser figure.

This means wealthier districts with higher property values such as Ocean Springs, Madison County, Rankin County and DeSoto County benefit since the rule essentially — according to EdBuild's proposal — is providing them with a subsidy of nearly $120 million.

Nancy Loome, the president of the pro-public schools advocacy group the Parents Campaign, told the forum that the MAEP was a good formula even though it could be improved. She said she liked the multipliers in the EdBuild proposal, but that her main problem with its base student cost.

"It doesn't have a formula for computing the base student cost," Loome said. "It means in the legislation that nothing will be written in a formula that would determine what that base cost is. It would leave it up the Legislature every year.

"The thing that is very appealing about that to some people in the Legislature is where there is no formula for figuring a base cost written into the law, you have no way to hold the Legislature accountable because there is no formula to yield full funding. If we don't know what full funding is, I can't tell you how much your school district is underfunded."

Grant Callen, the president and founder of pro-school choice group Empower Mississippi, told the forum that a new funding formula needed to have three key points:

  • Be equitable

  • Be transparent

  • Be student centered

He said that on those points, the MAEP fails miserably. He said pieces of it were student centered, but big chunks, such as special needs, are not student centered at all.

The state Supreme Court recently decided that the Legislature was not bound by the calculation of the MAEP, which is millions more than the Legislature is willing to spend on K-12 education. In fiscal 2018, which began July 1, the MAEP calculation was more than $2.43 billion, while the Legislature appropriated $2.2 billion for K-12 education.

That's a difference of more than $232 million, which is more than the budgets for state community colleges or the Department of Mental Health.

Forcing the Legislature to fully fund the formula calculation would've caused either massive cuts to other agencies or tax increases.

The lawsuit, brought by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove on behalf of 21 school districts, was one of two pincers that threatened to put K-12 spending in the hands of the courts. The passage of ballot Initiative 42 in 2015 would've done the same thing, giving power to the Hinds County Chancery Court to provide injunctive relief.

Blount told the Millsaps forum that the tax cut passed last session will cost the state's budget $417 million annually. He also said the Legislature should "revisit" passage of the largest tax cut in the state's history that eliminated an income tax bracket and will phase out the state's corporate franchise tax, which penalizes companies whether or not they make a profit.

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