LLOYD GRAY: Partisan rhetoric on school funding unhelpful to state

Somewhere along the line, the issue of education funding in Mississippi took a partisan turn. That division was on display last week.
In the 1990s, the state’s first Republican governor of modern times, Kirk Fordice, took a hard line against efforts to increase K-12 funding, but there were Republican legislators like Roger Wicker and Alan Nunnelee who opposed him on it.
Wicker even voted for a one-cent sales tax increase when schools were suffering from the revenue downturn of the early ’90s recession. Nunnelee, Wicker’s successor in the state Senate, voted in 1997 to override Fordice’s veto of the Mississippi Adequate Education Act, which established a formula that effectively upped funding levels for all school districts.
Those scenarios – Republican legislators pushing back at a GOP governor on school funding – are much rarer these days. Haley Barbour has seen to that.
What has emerged instead, as more Republicans have populated the Legislature and Barbour has exercised extraordinary influence over the legislative process, is the House with its Democratic leadership insisting on higher levels of education funding than the Republican-led Senate and Barbour and the Senate holding the line in the name of fiscal responsibility.
Fast-forward to August 2010 and the congressional vote on a bill that would send $26 billion to the states for budget relief, much of it in education. In Mississippi, the K-12 education component amounts to about $180 million when a change in the state matching formula for Medicaid is taken into account.
There may be good fiscal reasons to oppose the bill at a time of soaring federal deficits – even though it is ostensibly paid for over a 10-year period – as Sens. Wicker and Thad Cochran contended in their votes against it. But Barbour in criticizing what he called this “terrible legislation” chose to take it a rhetorical step further. The spending, he proclaimed, was designed to “meet the desires of the far left.”
That incumbent 1st District Congressman Travis Childers, engaged in a hot re-election contest with Nunnelee, voted for the bill, and that Nunnelee’s campaign quickly criticized that vote, is no doubt one reason for the governor’s classification of supporters of the education funding components of the legislation as “far left.”
But how many Mississippians would regard the bill’s intent – to save 2,000 education jobs in the state – that way? Is it “far left” to want to blunt the impact of increased class sizes and reduced course offerings in schools?
Unfortunately, this overheated rhetoric is a symptom of the growing partisan divide on public education in Mississippi, particularly on funding.
Historically low state and local funding isn’t the only reason Mississippi’s schools still lag the nation’s in student achievement, and money is far from the only solution to our state’s education shortcomings. But it’s unquestionably a component. Without sufficient funding, the improvements everyone wants are difficult if not impossible.
Much has been made over how much education spending has increased in Mississippi over the past decade or so, but our state still ranks near the bottom in per pupil spending. In 2008, the national average was $10,259 per pupil; in Mississippi it was 23 percent lower at $7,901, 45th in the nation.
This year, Mississippi schools are $230 million short of what the formula embedded in state law says is a merely “adequate” level of funding, and every school district has either cut teacher positions or not filled vacancies.
Again, there’s not an absolute correlation between spending and performance, but when the level of spending can’t support a certain level of educational services, the other factors are diminished.
In modern Mississippi, three governors have been most identified with public school improvement, including increased funding: William Winter, Ray Mabus and Ronnie Musgrove. All three are Democrats. As Republican strength increased, it was as if some in the GOP felt the need to differentiate themselves on the issue, and as things got more partisan the consensus on school funding that had developed began to unravel.
It’s the job of responsible elected officials, Republican and Democrat, who know the centrality of good public schools to community and state progress, to avoid the temptation to identify education funding as a partisan issue. If the hard-won consensus continues to unravel, this state’s in more trouble than we think.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.

Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

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