Education funding resurfaces as contentious issue for state

JACKSON – During the current state budget impasse, Gov. Haley Barbour says the House budget negotiators want to spend too much on kindergarten through 12th-grade public education.
Barbour says under his proposal, education will receive almost $200 million more than it has ever gotten. Yet he said House negotiators, during tough economic times when most agencies will receive a cut, want to provide an additional $46 million in spending for education.
“They (local schools) don’t have to get everything,” Barbour said recently.
House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, says Barbour is misrepresenting education funding and is reneging on a promise he made to local school districts.
House and Senate leaders, as well as the governor, currently can’t agree on a budget for the next fiscal year. The governor is expected to call legislators back for a special session this month to try to pass a budget.
In past years, House budget leaders have clashed with Barbour and Senate leaders on education funding. But in recent years, those clashes have been less contentious as the House position of fully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides the basics of operating local school districts, won out.
But this year during tough economic times, the education funding issue has resurfaced. It is particularly complex this year because it involves the use of federal stimulus funds designed to help states with their budget woes. A portion of those funds goes directly to the governor to be used to offset education budget cuts caused by a drop in state revenue collections.
Brown pointed out that a significant portion of the stimulus funds are designated for specific programs, such as special education and Title I for disadvantaged students, and cannot be used to pay for the basic operation of the school, such as for the salaries of classroom teachers or utilities. It is misleading, Brown said, to simply state education is getting $200 million more under the governor’s budget because much of that money is earmarked for those programs.
In his budget proposal for education, Barbour is using $49 million of the funds originally designated to offset about $80 million in cuts he was forced to make earlier in the current budget year because of the slowdown in tax collections. Since the current budget year will end on June 30, Barbour said it is obvious school districts have been able to withstand those cuts and will not need those funds restored.
Thus, he said, the funds can be used to plug budget holes in the fiscal year starting July 1.
Brown said many school districts still need those funds to balance their budgets for the current fiscal year. If they do not get the funds, they will face a budget deficit.
Brown added that Barbour promised school districts he would restore the cuts he made after he received the federal stimulus funds.
“Barbour has been after education since he has been here,” Brown said. “That is clear. I don’t know why. Maybe he had a bad experience in grammar school. Maybe he got a spanking he didn’t like.
“It’s one thing to say you are for public education. Put your money where your mouth is.”
Barbour, who earlier this week called Brown misinformed during a news conference, said, “The House wants to spend a bunch more money than we need to spend.” He also said the general public would say “what is this (impasse) about?” if it was understood that public education would get nearly $200 million extra under his proposal.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal