House, Senate disagree on education funding changes

By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – The House and Senate have passed differing versions of how to revamp the Mississippi Adequate Education Program funding formula, and the matter probably will not be resolved until near the end of the session.

The result will affect education funding for years to come.

“I hope we come up with a fair system to distribute funds to the school systems of the state,” said House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson.

Brown was part of the study committee formed last year to look at possible changes to the primary mechanism used to fund the state's schools. The panel was created after the House supported close to full funding and Gov. Haley Barbour and the Senate leadership said the state couldn't afford it.

The study committee endorsed full funding, as well as recommending efficiency standards for the funding formula and updating the method of counting students to ensure that the money districts receive matches the number of students.

The changes in the House bill follow closely the study committee's recommendations, while the Senate version rejects some of those recommendations. For example, the suggested efficiency standards are not in the Senate version.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg, prefers to give the state Board of Education latitude.

Under current law, the state board determines the cost of educating children in average or Level 3 school districts. That calculation is the amount the districts receive per student with the state providing more of that cost in property poor districts.

The study committee recommended using such efficiency standards as number of teachers and administrators per 1,000 students and number of janitors per 10,000 feet in selecting the districts to use in determining the base amount districts will receive.

“I think the state Department of Education would be happy if we do not (put into law) the selection process of the districts to determine the base student cost because it gives them more flexibility to select more efficient schools at Level 3 or higher,” Chaney said.

But Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, said he fears that if the method of selecting the schools to determine the base student cost is not put into law that it will make it easier for legislators toprovide an amount less than what the state Board of Education ascertains full funding to be.

Deputy state Superintendent Steve Williams said, “Our preference is to put this into law and say this is how we are doing it so that there is no question of how it is being done.”

The other difference between the Senate bill and the committee recommendation centers on growth factors. Currently the state board recalculates the formula each year.

The study committee recommended recalculating the formula every four years, but to tie the formula to some type of growth factor. For instance, in years when the formula is not recalculated it could be tied to the consumer price index. If the CPI rises, the amount of money going to schools would increase. If the CPI dips, so would the amount of money.

The House bill is tied to the CPI.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, prefers not to tie funding to any economic indicator, but instea to the overall budget.

“There is no Mississippi CPI,” Gordon said. “Mississippi does not always follow what the national CPI does. …

“Some years we might want to put more money in it. Some years we might not have the funds.”

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, has reiterated that less effort should be put into changing the formula and more should be done to find the funds to fully fund it.

To do otherwise, he said, is “hypocritical and absurd.”