Caution advisable on MAEP formula

By NEMS Daily Journal

Consultants can serve a useful purpose, and spending taxpayers’ money on them can sometimes be justified for the payoff later. That said, it’s good to know the state won’t spend the $500,000 the Legislature authorized for an evaluation of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula.
Instead, the state Department of Education will do the research necessary to answer lawmakers’ questions about the impact of potential changes to the formula.
The MAEP formula is one of the state’s most talked about and least achieved laws. Passed in 1997 and fully implemented in 2002, it sets the standard for state funding of local school districts based on what is necessary to provide children an “adequate” education.
Its primary rationale was to shore up property-poor school districts unable to provide a lot of local funding and help close the gap between them and the relatively wealthier districts. But the final legislation also gave a boost to the better-off districts to ensure support from their legislators.
The MAEP target has been met only twice since it has been in existence. Thus the repeated references to education being “underfunded.”
The battle in the early days over full funding of MAEP finally subsided in late 2006 when a bipartisan consensus emerged to press ahead with fulfilling the formula from 2007 forward. But not long after that, the Great Recession hit and revenues declined. Legislators haven’t appropriated the full amount since.
There is reason to be suspicious, then, that legislators who want to re-examine the formula wish to do so in order to justify reducing the amount the law sets to be spent. While the desire for economy in these tight-budget times is understandable, a word of caution is in order.
Mississippi is still near the bottom most every year in per capita expenditures on K-12 education. The goal should be to change that, not because money is the be-all and end-all of educational improvement, but because without adequate resources Mississippi’s schools will continue to start at a decided disadvantage. Gutting the MAEP formula in a way that would drain state funds from schools, or lower the commitment to getting the level of funding where it needs to be, would be counterproductive.
Additionally, the very existence of MAEP has been a key reason Mississippi hasn’t faced the expensive school equity lawsuits other states have.
A tweak here or there that funnels more money to where it’s most needed could potentially improve the MAEP formula. But with standards getting higher and accountability stronger, lawmakers should steer clear of any changes that would constitute a retreat from providing schools the funding they need to get the job done.