OUR OPINION: Budget deal must focus on MAEP, teacher pay

This is the week Mississippi legislative leaders have to get down to business to craft a final budget, with Saturday the deadline for negotiations to conclude. As in most years, this process will likely come down to the last day if not the final few hours.

The prospect of a raised revenue estimate this week – meaning lawmakers will have more money to work with – should be even more of an impetus to consider one factor above all others in the negotiations: the best interests of Mississippi’s schoolchildren.

Two principal ways that can be done involve funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program – the budgeted amount that provides state support for basic local school district operations – and a teacher pay raise.

First, MAEP. Not since the election-year Legislature of 2007 has the program been fully funded according to the formula laid out in state law. Lawmakers have simply chosen not to do what the law says. The result is that schools have been shorted a total of $1.2 billion in the years since. They’ve had to eliminate teacher positions, course offerings and other elements that directly affect the quality of education for children.

The economic downtown that began in 2008 caused a shortage of revenues and a retrenchment on MAEP. But the state has come out of those tough times and it’s time to start making greater progress toward full funding.

This year both the House and Senate leadership level-funded MAEP, which meant funding would still be more than $260 million below where it should be. Then something surprising happened in the Senate. A bipartisan coalition led by Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, narrowly passed a floor amendment increasing MAEP funding by $60 million.

We hope that position prevails. While $60 million more is far from what the schools need, it at least gets the Legislature started toward an incremental, multi-year effort for full MAEP funding. And this year alone it would mean $818,000 extra for schools in Tupelo, $928,000 in Lee County, $281,000 in New Albany and $222,000 in Amory, just to cite a few examples.

On teacher pay, both houses have backed significant raises. There are details to be worked out, including whether bonuses for schools that rate high or improve will be included. But raising Mississippi’s historically near-the-bottom teacher pay is essential to attracting and retaining top-flight professionals in the classroom, and no factor is more important in a child’s education.

If it is to come through for Mississippi’s schoolchildren, the Legislature must give both the MAEP increase and the teacher pay boost top priority in these final days of the 2014 session.