Reality, choices check optimism on ed funding

JACKSON – As late as one year ago, Gov. Haley Barbour still was talking about full funding of kindergarten through 12th grade education.
But as the state revenue situation continued to deteriorate, talk of providing enough money to educate students on an “adequate” level became a thing of the past.
Now many state leaders share the view of Senate Education Committee Chair Videt Carmichael, R-Meridian, who said the reduced funding for next year “is the best we can do under the circumstances.”
In May 2009, Barbour – who had been criticized for much of his tenure for opposing full funding because he said the state could not afford it – vowed to fully fund K-12 education for that fiscal year and the next.
Newly obtained federal stimulus funds, he said, would be used to restore the budgets he had cut that year because of slumping revenue collections and to fully fund education in the 2010 fiscal year, which started July 1.
As it turned out, education was not fully funded that year or the next. And in the budget passed last month for fiscal year 2011, starting July 1, education is $232 million short of full funding.
If additional federal stimulus funds are approved by Congress, as expected, that amount will be reduced, but still the local school districts will be well over $150 million short of full funding.
In recent years, talk about full funding of education has been a key part of the legislative debate, and most of that talk has centered on the Adequate Education Program.
The Adequate Education Program provides the bulk of state support to operate local school districts. It is simply a formula that determines the cost to educate a child in an “adequate” district – one where the costs are not excessively low or high.
The school districts are required to put up a percentage of their local tax base to pay that adequate cost for each student and the state provides the rest.
State law mandates the formula be fully funded, but that has happened only twice since its enactment – in the election years of 2003 and 2007. It was fully funded in the 2008 session, but Barbour made cuts later after tax collections slowed.
During the 2007 and 2008 sessions, legislators and the governor indicated that the fight over full funding of the program was a thing of the past. Now that it was fully funded, they reasoned, it would not be that difficult to ensure that full funding continued year to year.
But that was before the recession hit.
Since the high water mark of the 2007 session, local schools have received less money each year.
Not counting any stimulus funds that might come Mississippi’s way, public education is receiving for the upcoming fiscal year about $220 million less than what it received in the 2007 session.
Almost every day reports surface with examples of the results of the drop in funding – reductions in the number of teachers and teacher furloughs.
Based on the economy, Carmichael said, funding for the upcoming year “is a little better than I thought it would be.”
Many others agree.
But Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said the Legislature had money in various reserve accounts that could have been used to lessen the blow to the public schools during the upcoming year.
“We are making a serious mistake with this budget,” he said. “The cuts we are getting ready to make are so deep and so severe that they are counterproductive and we don’t have to do it.”
State Superintendent Tom Burnham has been relatively quiet about the impact of the cuts. But he has said the loss of funds would hurt school districts that are in the midst of enacting tough new accountability standards.
Barbour and others point out that the cuts in most state agencies are as deep or deeper than those in K-12. And other parts of the education system have suffered as well.
Like K-12, higher education has seen its funding has gone steadily down since the 2007 session.
Community colleges received $238.3 million in 2007, when K-12 was fully funded. For the upcoming fiscal year, the community colleges received nearly $15 million less.
The eight public universities received $391.5 million, not including funds for subsidiaries, such as agriculture operations, in 2007 and this year are receiving nearly $49 million less.
Legislators and the governor say the budget situation will be more difficult next year than it was during the 2010 session.
But it’s also an election year, meaning Mississippians again could see full funding get at least a lot of talk, if not implementation.

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

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal