School funding shortfalls could trigger lower target

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The state spending less money on local school districts in recent years could result in a reduction in how much it is legally obligated to provide K-12 education in the coming years.
The Mississippi Adequate Education Program funding formula currently would generate $2.36 billion for the upcoming 2013-14 school year for local school districts. If the formula was recalculated for the upcoming 2013 legislative session, as has been discussed, the local school districts would be owed nearly $170 million less from the state.
In per pupil expenditures, Mississippi already is near the bottom nationally – 49th – according to the Parents Campaign, a statewide education advocacy group.
Why those automatic cuts would occur is a bit confusing. The key is to remember how the formula works for the Adequate Education Program, which is the method used to provide the state’s costs for educating 490,000 public school students.
The formula works by the state Department of Education identifying “adequate” – or successful – districts and determining how much they spend for school operations – the instructional, administrative, maintenance and ancillary costs. Those adequate performing districts that spend significantly more or less than other school systems are not used by the state Department of Education in developing the formula.
Based on the expenditures in the mid-range districts, an average cost per student is developed. Local school districts statewide are supposed to receive that average cost per student multiplied by their average daily attendance.
Because of an unprecedented drop in state revenue collections in 2009-2010, the Adequate Education Program has been underfunded a total of about $980 million since the 2007-08 school year. The 2007-08 school year was the high water mark for education funding. Since then, education funding was reduced every year until the most recent 2012 session where it was increased about $20 million.
In simplest terms, because less state funds have been going to public education, the local school districts have spent less money, meaning the MAEP formula generates less per student.
State Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, one of the chief architects of the MAEP when it was passed in 1997, said local school districts should not be punished because of actions by the Legislature.
“When we passed the formula, we also passed a law requiring the Legislature to fully fund the formula,” Bryan said. “…We did not take into account that the Legislature would consistently break the law and not fund the formula.”
Bryan and some Democrats, such as former House Education Chair Cecil Brown of Jackson, said they believe the intent of the Republican leadership of the Legislature is to look for ways not to fund the formula.
“I don’t think people understand how severe the problem is,” Bryan said.
But Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said the goal is to keep education a top priority and to put as much money in the program as possible during the 2013 session, though he stopped short of promising full funding.
Reeves pointed out that during the 2012 session – his first as lieutenant governor – education funding was increased.
He said going forward “we are going to do everything we can to increase funding for public education. That is where our priority is.”
Under current law, the MAEP formula is recalculated every four years. In the three years between recalculation, the districts are supposed to receive an inflationary adjustment.
There has been talk of changing the law so that the formula is calculated every year, which was how the law was originally written.
If the law were to be changed during the 2013 session to recalculate then, it would produce about $167 million less for the local school districts, according to Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford. If the law is not changed and it is recalculated in 2014, as the law currently mandates, the amount of the cut would be based at least in part on how much money the schools get in the 2013 session.
House Education Chair John Moore, R-Brandon, said changing the law for yearly recalculations is not high on his agenda for the 2013 session, but did not rule out the possibility of the Legislature taking up the issue.
But he said he has interest in “tweaking” the law to send less money for administrative costs and more for the classroom.
Tollison said that could be done by using only districts deemed to be the most efficient in calculating how much the formula would generate for administrative costs.
Tollison said that change would save about $20 million annually, which could be directed toward the classroom.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com