Legislators question MAEP’s viability

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Some of the state’s political leadership seems to be throwing in the towel when it comes to fully funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.
Senate President Pro-Tem Terry Brown, R-Columbus, House Speaker Pro Tem Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, and House Ways and Means Chair Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, all expressed frustration recently at interim state Superintendent Lynn House for informing them and other legislative leaders of how much it would cost to fully fund the program.
It was the classic case of shooting the messenger. After all, by law, the Board of Education is mandated each year to inform the legislative leadership how much it would cost to fund the program.
Brown said it was time “to scrap” MAEP essentially because it was impossible for the state to fund. But it was not that long ago that nearly every politician in the state – perhaps with the exception of Brown – said the battle to fully fund MAEP was over and that never again would there be debate about whether the program should be fully funded.
That was essentially the position of then-Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and then-Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who is now the governor, as late as the 2009 legislative session in the midst of what has become known as the Great Recession.
But for various reasons it was not fully funded that year, and, in the midst of an unprecedented drop in state revenue collections, the Legislature has been unable to fully fund it since then. It is about $260 million short of full funding for the current fiscal year.
That has led some in state government to believe that fully funding the program is next to impossible. Because of that, it is time to scrap the program or to at least make changes in the formula to reduce the costs of the program.
Granted, there is nothing sacred about the program. It is just a funding formula and some changes might be merited. But, remember, Mississippi already is near or at the bottom when it comes to spending on education.
Do we really want to make an all-out effort to see how low we can go?
The Legislature adopted the Adequate Education Program in 1997. Many believe it had the potential to be the most important education legislation ever passed. It was developed by a group of outside consultants at the behest of legislators such as Hob Bryan, Ronnie Musgrove and others, as a way to head off the costly equity funding lawsuits filed in other states by poor school districts.
The goal of the funding formula was to provide enough state funds to all districts to ensure an adequate level of education. Poorer school districts, of course, need more funds to reach that adequate level, and under the formula, the poorer a district, the more state funds it receives.
The program was not fully enacted until the 2002 session of the Mississippi Legislature. It was not fully funded that year, but was the following year.
For the next three years then-Gov. Barbour curbed efforts of a Democratic-controlled House to fully fund the program. Barbour maintained the state could not afford to fully fund the costly formula and even formed a committee to look at the formula. The recommendation of the committee was that the formula should be changed to provide more state funds to the local school districts.
In 2007, another election year, Barbour acquiesced and agreed to full funding.
But the Republican governor went a step further. He said now that full funding had been obtained it would not be that difficult to maintain full funding.
Bryant, who was the auditor at the time running for the office of lieutenant governor, said essentially the same thing on the campaign trail.
Sure, it was a campaign promise, but most people took them at their words.
In fairness to everyone involved, no one could have foreseen the dramatic impact on state revenue collections that the Great Recession would have.
But by the same token, at some point in the future, based on what happened in 2007 and the promises that were made, it seems possible that the state could again reach a point where it is possible most years to fully fund the program.
After all, it seems to be counterproductive that the poorest state in the nation, with the least educated citizenry, with one of the lowest per pupil expenditure levels in the nation would be looking for ways to spend less on education.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.

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