In the rush of this week's news, both horrific and celebratory, a milestone in Mississippi history may have gotten short shrift.
Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law appropriations bills passed by the 2007 Legislature that give education at all levels the most funding in state history. The legislation includes:
– Full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which sets a formula for providing the basics to local K-12 school districts throughout the state. It's the first time the formula has been fully funded in four years, ending a long battle between the House on one side and the majority of the Senate and the governor on the other.
– A 3 percent pay increase for K-12 teachers, on top of a multiple-year raise package that got Mississippi teachers closer to the Southeastern average and that constituted the bulk of the increase in school spending in recent years.
– A 20.5 percent increase in funding for community colleges, bringing them a step closer to the sought-after “mid-point” per-pupil funding formula between K-12 and universities that they seek.
– A 14.3 percent boost in funding for universities, which – like community colleges – are still trying to recover from big cuts they took in recent years.
The state's financial situation improved this year, contributing to the higher funding for all of education – a total $3.5 billion expenditure. But also important were the voices of support heard from citizen activists and the prospect of legislators facing voters in this election year. It should say something about the value Mississippians place on education funding that the only two times the Adequate Education Program has been fully funded are the last two election years.
It's often said that the amount of money schools get is not the sole determinant of their ability to educate students properly, and of course that's true. But without sufficient funding in this state where schools have historically been well under-funded, we will never reach the high expectations Mississippians must set for themselves.
All those who dismiss the importance of steadily increasing education funding need do to see a rebuttal is to consider Toyota's community-minded $50 million, 10-year investment in the school systems in Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties, to begin when the company's Blue Springs manufacturing plant starts production. While it's a generous gesture, it's also clear Toyota wants more-than-adequately funded schools to produce the kind of workforce it and this region will need to prosper. There's a strong element of enlightened self-interest, as there is for all business interest and investment in education.
The public investments made in K-12 schools, community colleges and universities are critical in shaping the future welfare of those they serve – and of everyone else in this state. Without a strong education system from top to bottom, everything else is wishful thinking.
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