Impact from aid unclear for now

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – A spokesman for the state Department of Education said it will probably “take several weeks” to determine the impact of federal legislation passed and signed into law Tuesday to help financially strained school districts across the nation.
Under the federal legislation, about $248 million is earmarked for Mississippi, including $180 million for kindergarten through 12th-grade schools, out of a $26 billion package.
But Gov. Haley Barbour has criticized the legislation, saying to access one portion of the funds – totaling about $98 million – the state would have to spend up to an additional $75 million on education and that would require taking money from other vital services at a difficult time.
Mississippi, like most states, is dealing with a historic drop in state tax collections.
Others, though, say they do not know whether the state will have to spend additional money on education to draw down the funds federal officials say are designed to save about 2,000 education jobs in Mississippi.
“While we are cautiously optimistic about receiving some federal funds to help our schools, until we receive the guidelines on how the money can be spent, we won’t know how money impacts K-12 education in Mississippi,” said Pete Smith, spokesman for the state Department of Education. “It will probably take not even days, but several weeks for guidelines to be handed down to see how we can use this money.”
Educators are almost unanimous in agreeing Mississippi school districts, which were underfunded by more than $230 million during the 2010 state legislative session, according to the formula in state law, can use additional funds. But guidelines must be adopted by the U.S. Department of Education on how the states can obtain and use the funds.
According to an analysis of the federal legislation developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers, to qualify for the $98 million pot of money the state must spend the amount on public education – kindergarten through university level – equal to what was spent in fiscal year 2009 or 2010. But if the state’s tax revenue for calendar year 2009 is less than it was in calendar year 2006, then the state must spend as much on education as it did in fiscal year 2006.
It appears, according to research by Ed Sivak of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, state tax collections were more in 2006 than 2009. But the details of exactly what state expenditures will be used in determining how much was spent on education in those years will be part of the guidelines developed by the U.S. Department of Education.
Most state officials were hesitant Wednesday to guess on those guidelines.
But Sivak said, “This money is to preserve jobs and help kids. We need to be creative and look at all options to get this money into the state.”
If Mississippi does qualify for the funds, they could be distributed directly to the Department of Education to give to school districts if Barbour, for whatever reason, opts not to accept them. The funds can be used for the current or next school year for the support of K-12 education “to retain or create education jobs,” according to the summary.
The funds would be distributed based on the state’s funding formula, which is the Adequate Education Program in Mississippi, or they can be doled out similar to how federal Title I funds are disbursed.
The funds could not be used to supplement a rainy day fund or to retire debt.
Meanwhile, a campaign spokesman for 1st District Republican congressional nominee Alan Nunnelee, the state Senate Appropriations chairman from Tupelo, issued a statement criticizing incumbent Congressman Travis Childers for his support of the bill. Childers said he voted for the legislation to save teacher jobs and benefit school children in the district.
“Our congressman claims to be looking out for the children of north Mississippi,” said Nunnelee spokesman Morgan Baldwin. “How, then, can he justify mortgaging their future on massive spending bills that have failed to live up to their promise of creating jobs?”
Another portion of the federal legislation approved Tuesday is less controversial. It would provide a better match rate to the states to draw down federal Medicaid funds. The enhanced matching rate will save Mississippi about $150 million that normally would be used to provide the state’s share of the Medicaid costs, but now can be used in other areas.
The Mississippi Legislature and Barbour already have agreed on how those funds would be spent. Under what was passed during the 2010 session, $110 million would be spent during the current fiscal year with $82 million going to the public schools and a much lesser amount gong to other entities like higher education and public safety. The remainder would be saved for the 2011 Legislature to appropriate for the upcoming fiscal year.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.