State schools could get federal help

JACKSON – A second option to provide federal funds to help Mississippi’s cash-strapped school districts is alive in Congress.
Before recessing for the July 4 holiday, the U.S. House passed legislation that would provide nearly $100 million in federal funds for Mississippi school districts, according to a news release from District 1 U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, a Democrat.
The total in the legislation for local school districts nationwide is $10 billion.
Congress, particularly on the Democrat side, has been struggling with how to help states dealing with massive budget cuts because of a slowdown in tax collections. Mississippi has experienced for the first time in recent history three consecutive years in which state revenue was less than the previous year.
School districts across Mississippi have announced they are being forced to eliminate teaching positions to deal with the budget crunch.
The bill passed by the U.S. House would alleviate some of those problems. Childers estimated it would allow 1,660 Mississippi teachers to keep their jobs.
“This legislation will support teaching jobs throughout the state, helping prevent unemployment and ensure that our children receive the education they need to secure good-paying jobs and contribute to a skilled workforce in the 1st District,” Childers said in his news release.

Multi-purpose bill
The bill also provides supplemental funding for the nation’s war efforts, funds to shore up the Pell Grant Program to provide assistance for college tuition, funds to increase the number of border patrol agents and funds for people affected by the Gulf Coast oil spill.
It is far from certain the legislation can obtain the required super-majority 60 votes to pass the U.S. Senate. U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican, said in published reports last week the Democrats did not have the necessary votes.
Federal legislation to provide aid for cash-strapped states has been difficult to pass because some say it would expand the federal deficit.
Others say if the states do not receive help, tens of thousands of teachers and other state employees are going to lose their jobs nationwide, slowing the economic turnaround.

Bringing back Medicaid
While the money for school districts to save teacher jobs has surfaced in federal legislation in recent days, there has been more of a focus on an effort to enhance the states’ federal Medicaid match.
That proposal also is being considered by Congress, but it too is caught up in the battle over the deficit.
Enhancing the Medicaid match would free up an estimated $187 million in Mississippi that could be switched from the Medicaid health care program to other programs, such as education.
In April, the Mississippi Legislature passed a proposal signed into law by Gov. Haley Barbour to spend $110 million of the enhanced Medicaid match funds – much of it directed toward education – if the federal bill is passed.
In April, most believed the enhanced Medicaid match legislation would pass. As time goes by, however, some are beginning to have doubts.
“I have been concerned about the federal money,” said state House Education Chair Cecil Brown, D-Jackson. “I still think it will pass Congress just because so many states have already built those funds into their budget.
“If we don’t get it, it will mean even more layoffs.”
Most of the nation’s governors, including Barbour, have written Congress advocating the passage of the enhanced Medicaid match legislation.
About half the states, according to published accounts, already have built the enhanced Medicaid funds into their budgets. Mississippi did not, but did pass the bill to appropriate the funds if they do become available.
If Congress approves the enhanced Medicaid funds, it would provide nearly $5 million in additional funds for Northeast Mississippi school districts.
Brown said that either the enhanced Medicaid match or the extra money to preserve teacher positions would be helpful.
He said he is more familiar with the enhanced Medicaid match legislation and does not know “if strings are attached” to the measure providing funds for teachers.
“But anything like that is welcome,” Brown said.

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

Bobby Harrison / Daily Journal Jackson Bureau