BILL MINOR: GOP targets MAEP public education’s anchor

By Bill Minor

In 1997, when the Legislature enacted the Adequate Education Program, it was one of Mississippi’s rare monumental legislative accomplishments of the 20th century and for once was a major education reform not forced upon the state by the federal government.
MAEP, as it became known, basically installed a system of equity funding to supplement education resources of poorer school districts whose tax base is too thin to provide adequate instruction for their children comparable to richer districts.
This was no wild-eyed share-the-wealth concept. Actually, it was one notable instance where Mississippi was ahead of the curve in staying out of the courts for failing to use its taxing power to provide adequate public education for all the state’s school age children.
At that time, at least a half dozen other states had been hauled into courts – state courts, mind you – and ordered to equalize education opportunity for each child as a constitutional obligation of state government.
There’s no doubt the MAEP funding formula is somewhat complicated and requires dedication of a substantial amount of state revenue, but it works well when fully funded – which has only happened twice in its 16 years of existence.
Now, for the first time in the lifetime of MAEP, a highly partisan Republican regime is in control of state legislative policy and the program is in trouble on several fronts, funding not the least of them.
Some GOPers, especially state Auditor Stacey Pickering, contend the program is outdated or improperly enforced, and seem determined to pick the program apart by removing portions one at a time. His main beef with MAEP is that the state Department of Education doesn’t require students to spend at least 67 percent of the day in school when counted in ADA (average daily attendance). Ironically, the auditor’s office used to have school attendance auditors on staff, but the so-called “head-counters” were dropped when Gov. Phil Bryant was state Auditor.
Pickering is among a cadre of ambitious young Republicans around state government who have their eyes on higher office. His target is believed to be the U.S. Senate based on the possibility Thad Cochran will step down in 2014. Pickering would need some trophy to run on and scrapping MAEP very well could be the one he has in mind.
When Republicans took control of state government in 2012, they obviously arrived with a notion that any major program enacted under Democrats must be some giant give-away and should be put on the chopping block. However, if GOPers dismantle MAEP, and its equity/adequate funding system designed to give all children equal educational opportunity in both richer and poorer school districts, they very well could throw the state into legal hot water. Education watchers wonder why the state hasn’t already been hit with lawsuits when state lawmakers have failed to fully fund it.
Initially, the 1997 law provided a phase-in over six years, building up to full funding in 2003. Estimates then were that per pupil funding would reach at least $2664 annually, including local district taxes. With inflation and other rising costs such as increased teacher salaries factored in, the base student cost is now $5104. Legislative funding, however, has been 10 percent short of funding for each of the past three years.
The late Sen. Grey Ferris, a Democrat from Vicksburg, considered one of the brightest and most conscientious lawmakers to hit the Capitol in the 20th century, is chiefly credited with hammering out the complex mechanics of MAEP funding. Aiding Ferris was Sen. Hob Bryan, D- Amory. who is still on the scene but isn’t even on the Senate Education committee under the new Republican regime. However, the landmark legislation, couldn’t have been written into law, many school advocates say, had not then-Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove bucked opposition from Gov. Kirk Fordice.
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.