OPINION: Adequate Education Program will be underfunded again

JACKSON – Nearly every politician campaigning for state office in 2007 promised that whether the Mississippi Adequate Education Program would be fully funded was no longer an issue.
Game over, they said. Move on to other issues.
From henceforth, the MAEP, which provides most of the basics of operating local school districts, would be fully funded. Gone were the legislative battles in past years over full funding, they said.
Remember, when the politicians were making their promise, the Adequate Education Program had been fully funded only twice – in 2003, an election year, and in 2007, an election year. After that full funding in 2007, they promised it would not be an issue again.
In the summer of 2007, Phil Bryant made that promise during his successful campaign for lieutenant governor and Haley Barbour made that promise during his successful re-election campaign for governor. Nearly every legislative candidate, including Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, made similar promises.
Guess what?
Here it is two years later and the Adequate Education Program still has been fully funded twice – 2003 and 2007.
Let your humble scribe be the first to confidently predict that it will be fully funded again – in 2011, an election year.
Now, in fairness to the politicians, they could not have anticipated the dramatic economic downturn that has occurred since they made those commitments.
Barbour would argue he had no option other than to cut the program that provides salaries for teachers, money to keep the lights on in local schools and for other operational costs.
In both the 2008 and 2009 sessions, legislators and Barbour tried to keep their promises by fully funding MAEP. But when state tax collections came in lower than the estimate, Barbour was required by law to act by either making cuts or by the combination of making cuts and taking up to $50 million out of the state rainy day fund to offset the drop in tax revenue.
Barbour opted only to make cuts.
Last year, he dealt with having to make cuts because of lower-than-expected tax collections the same way past governors have done – by exempting education from the cuts as long as he could. This year the governor took a different tact. He made $172 million in cuts earlier this month and $158 million of those were to education, including $103.5 million to the Adequate Education Program.
The governor said the cuts were justified because education is receiving a substantial amount of federal money through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly called the stimulus program. He said he did not cut other agencies because – under the budget passed by the Legislature and signed into law by him – those agencies were getting at least 5 percent less funds than they got the previous year.
Last year, Democratic House leaders tried to restore the Barbour cuts, but their efforts were blocked by Bryant and Nunnelee.
It is not clear whether the House leaders will try in the 2010 session to restore the last round of the Barbour cuts to MAEP.
The truth is there is no easy answer to the current revenue drop-off caused by the prolonged economic downturn. Politicians on all levels face difficult decisions.
Were the cuts to education the best option among a lot of bad options?
Some would argue that with more than $500 million in various reserve funds, the governor acted too quickly to cut education. Instead, he could have used those reserve funds. He would argue that the current economic downturn is far from over and those funds should be saved for when the stimulus funds are gone.
Barbour critics also would say if education is a top priority like every politician says when running for office, then education should not have to absorb the first round of cuts. On the flip side, it is true a lot of agencies not receiving stimulus funds at the level education did already have absorbed cuts.
But education faces accountability measures – written into state law – that no other agency faces. And many believe Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation not because it spends more on education than other states do, but because it spends less.

Contact Daily Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Bobby Harrison by e-mail at bobbyharrison@djournal.com or call him at (601) 353-3119.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal