By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – When the Mississippi Adequate Education Program was put in place in 1997, its supporters touted that it would not take from wealthy school districts to fund poor systems as had occurred in other states facing lawsuits over equity issues.
But Mississippi Superintendent of Education Tom Burnham questions whether MAEP really is providing equity, considering it has been fully funded only twice since being fully implemented in 2002.
The Legislature has appropriated up to $500,000 to do a study of the formula this year. House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Popularville, a driving force behind the study, said he wants it to be done by the same consultants who helped devise the formula for the state in the 1990s – Colorado-based Augenblick, Palaich and Associates.
Frierson said the formula “needs to be worked on and dealt with from an equity point of view.”
When Frierson talks about equity he is basically referring to money for districts that have a limited local property tax base to help fund their operations. Mississippi is one of the few states that have not been sued on equity funding issues. Many cite MAEP as the reason.
Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, who was a staunch supporter of MAEP when it was enacted and still supports full funding, said in some states that lost equity funding lawsuits, such as Texas, money was diverted from wealthy school districts to poor districts.
He reiterated that is not the case in Missisisppi.
The formula is developed by calculating the costs per student of operating districts deemed to be efficient. The calculations include costs for classroom instruction, administrative functions, utilities and other items, such as maintenance. Each school is supposed to receive that calculation – about $5,000 – for each student.
But the formula requires each district to contribute 28 mills, or 27 percent of the total costs, whichever is less. A mill is a tax rate equal to $1 per $1,000 of assessed value of taxable property.
For the upcoming school year, MAEP, funded at $2.035 billion, is about $260 million short of full funding.
“Chairman Frierson and I have the same concerns,” Burnham said. “…How can you say you have addressed equity for children in Mississippi when you look at the disparity a mill generates in Madison or Rankin County … and look at what a mill generates in the Mississippi Delta?”
Burnham explained that if the formula is not funding adequacy because it is not being fully funded, then it could not be providing an equitable level of funding. Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who was one of the creators of the formula in the 1990s, questioned the need for an expensive study.
“The way the formula works is fairly straightforward,” he said. “Before we pay a pile of money for another study, I think it would be better to sit around and discuss how the formula works … If it needs to be changed, that can be done in about one hour and we can send that money to the school districts.”
In 2005, at the behest of then-Gov. Haley Barbour, who was concerned too much was being spent on the formula, the same consultants performed a similar study of MAEP. That study resulted in minor changes that were put in place by the Legislature. But the study recommended changes that would have increased the amount of money going to school districts. Those changes were not put in place.
After that study, Barbour relented on full funding. By the 2007 legislative session with the state flush in revenue, thanks to the rebuilding effort after Hurricane Katrina, the formula was fully funded. Barbour and others ran for re-election on the promise that from that point forward the MAEP would be fully funded. But soon after, the national recession hit, revenue collections plummeted and talk of full funding subsided, though it is still the law.
Frierson’s proposal to place an additional focus on equity could pit him against some of his fellow Republicans who hail from wealthy school districts. Many of those wealthy school district legislators would be reluctant to support any changes that might negatively impact the flow of money to their districts.
Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves steered clear of the equity versus adequacy issue in a recent interview, but stressed that he supports ensuring that fast-growing districts, which are generally the wealthier districts, are not penalized.