HED: Education grabs share of funds

CATEGORY: Legislature

AUTHOR: BOBBY

HED: Education grabs share of funds

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Funding for public education should be enhanced in the $3.1 billion general fund budget the Mississippi Legislature is working to pass.

Until this past year, the percentage of state funding going to public education had dropped for six consecutive years.

Although more money was going to education, public education’s actual share of state funds was declining, causing concern for some.

But that trend was reversed last year as the 1997 Legislature made a substantial commitment to public education with a 10 percent pay raise for teachers, phased in over three years, and the passage of the Adequate Education Program.

The program is designed to enhance funding to all school districts, with a special emphasis on districts that have limited local funds because of a small property tax base.

Continuing the trend

Though no legislation as substantial as Adequate Education will come out of the 1998 Legislature, House Education Committee Chairman Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said the state’s emphasis on education will continue under the new budget.

“We have turned the trend around as far as the percentage of dollars going to public education,” McCoy said.

The state budget won’t be finalized until it’s passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Kirk Fordice.

But the process of compiling the budget is close to completion. On Saturday, the leadership of the House and Senate met and hammered out the differences the two chambers have on how the money will be spent.

On Sunday afternoon, the Legislature met to begin passing those budget agreements. That process is expected to end today, with the session scheduled to end by next Sunday.

McCoy said education has done OK in the process.

“We have tried to accent what we have identified as positives and have tried to deal with what we have identified as negatives,” McCoy said.

Those positives, he said, are items such as the Tech Prep program. Under the new budget, the state will continue to put money into the middle school and high school based programs that emphasize technology training while not sacrificing academics.

Studies, state education officials have said, reveal that students who participate in the Tech Prep program perform better on standardized tests.

The $3.1-billion general fund budget also will include money to provide a $6,000-per-year raise for teachers who complete the intensive national certification process and become master teachers. Currently, Mississippi has fewer than 30 master teachers.

Providing the $6,000-per-year raise for master teachers also was part of Gov. Kirk Fordice’s legislative agenda.

“These teachers will provide us with strong leadership,” said House Education Committee Vice Chairman Eloise Scott, D-Tupelo.

In an effort to get more master teachers in the state, the Legislature intends to appropriate $100,000 to the University of Mississippi and $175,000 for the University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg and on the Gulf Coast to set up programs to help teachers complete the national certification process.

Currently, the only program to assist teachers with the lengthy and comprehensive process is at Mississippi State, which will receive $150,000 this year to continue its master teacher certification program.

Combating negatives

In dealing “with negatives,” McCoy said the state budget will include $3 million for scholarship, housing and other incentives to attract teachers to areas of the state experiencing a shortage of qualified instructors.

“The teacher shortage problem is a real emergency in some areas,” Scott said.

The budget also will include $1.5 million for the state Department of Education to help districts that have a substantial number of students not reading at their grade level.

The second year of the Adequate Education Program will be funded at $27.8 million. When it’s fully phased in by July 2002, the equity funding program will pump an additional $130 million into public education.

“I think we are making very positive strides in public education,” McCoy said.

Overall, the state has been able to place more money in public education because of revenue growth. The general fund budget has grown from a little more than $2 billion in fiscal year 1991 to $3.1 billion for fiscal year 1999, which begins July 1 and is the budget the Legislature is working to pass.

The total state budget, including federal funds and special funds (such as the tax on gasoline that is designated for highways), is $8.7 billion.

But it’s the $3.1 billion general fund budget where legislators have the most discretion in spending money.

And that is the area where public education was getting a smaller percentage of money until this past year.