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Mississippi Legislature goes 0-for-2 this session on needed education reforms

NAUGHT: The Mississippi Senate struck out on educational reform twice this session. Photo illustration by Steve Wilson

On January 9, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves told the Stennis Capitol Press Forum that he'd prioritize both a rewrite of the state's K-12 funding formula and an expansion of the state's education scholarship program for all students.

It's not even baseball season yet and the Mighty Tate and the Senate, to paraphrase from Ernest Lawrence Thayer's classic baseball poem Casey at Bat, have struck out twice this session when it comes to education reform.

Both times the lieutenant governor was unable to convince enough Republicans feeling pressure from pro-government school forces in their districts to vote for the bills. While the funding formula bill at least made it to the floor, the ESA bill that would've expanded the program from only children with special needs to all did not.

Thursday, the Democrats were able to file an arcane parliamentary maneuver of a motion that killed the funding formula rewrite bill by flipping it back to the Education Committee. With the committee deadline passed, that effectively killed the bill thanks to eight Republican senators who sided with the Democrats and four more that didn't cast a vote.

Now the groups that Reeves has called repeatedly "the forces of the status quo" are emboldened by their successful defense of the more than 20-year-old Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which has only be fully funded twice. 

Even after the state Supreme Court ruled that the MAEP was non-binding, those who want ever-increasing money for public schools will continue to beat up GOP members for "underfunding" public schools. Never mind that the Democrats held control of both chambers before the GOP takeover in 2011 and could've chosen to fully fund MAEP.

The dirty secret is that to do so would consume a huge chunk of the state's $5.9 billion budget. The MAEP request for fiscal 2019 that starts on July 1 is $2.4 billion, while the Legislature will likely appropriate more than $2.2 billion, a difference of more than $200 million.

Never mind that the GOP has either increased or level-funded K-12 education since it took charge of the Legislature. Or that a 2014 Cato Institute study of national education spending vs. achievement (as measured by SAT scores) found that while spending has increased massively, achievement hasn't edged up noticeably.

The costliest result of Thursday's defeat is the concept that taxpayer dollars for education follow the child in Mississippi. The new formula clearly would've established such a precedent and opened the door for more school choice, an important tool for those whose parents can't afford private school tuition and want to remove their child from a failing school or district.

The new formula wasn't perfect, but at least it provided more money to districts with more students and less to those shrinking enrollment. Imagine that, having more students means more money and less means less. What a concept. 

The House did its job, passing the new funding formula with exceptional speed early in the session. House Speaker Philip Gunn did a great job of holding together his caucus to get the legislation to the Senate with plenty of time and no excuses.

Now the MAEP will remain and the hopes of a student-centered formula are dim at best. Next session will be a nothing burger in an election year, since those same GOP members who voted to kill the rewrite will hear even more strident voices threatening their incumbency.

This was the moment and now the moment is past. Maybe next time the GOP will do a better job of outreach to school districts and show that a new formula would benefit the majority of them.

While this battle is lost, the war to improve the state's K-12 education system with a more reasonable formula and add more accountability begins today.

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