OUR OPINION: Education again makes top priority action list

Adequately funding education at all level remains the annual priority issues of the Mississippi Legislature because even when there’s opportunity, not to mention obligation, to fully fund education it is bypassed for other agencies.

The 2013 session was dubbed the education session by Gov. Phil Bryant, but the 2014 session is shaping up to have the same characteristics of importance, especially because of Speaker Philip Gunn’s statements about across-the-board teacher pay raises.

Capitol Bureau Chief Bobby Harrison’s series of articles about 2014 legislative issues begins today, and his first look is at education.

The background he offers is insightful because it shows Mississippi steadily losing ground between what’s required under the legislatively approved formula for pubic schools and what’s been approved since 2008, the last year of full funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

The 2008 total, $2.207 billion, met the mandate. The total for the 2013 budget was $2.315 billion, $259.7 million below requirements. The total for the current 2014 budget is $2.376 billion, $293 million down, and the 2015 projection for full funding is $2.347 billion.

In addition, individual initiatives within the education budget and other education spending press for action, and their constituencies can be expected to mount a strong push for better outcomes than in previous years.

New state Superintendent of Education Carey Wright, for example, has said the state needs to strive to provide additional funds to kindergarten through 12 grade education, plus increase the money going for pre-kindergarten programs. In a mid-December editorial board meeting at the Daily Journal Wright was insistent that the importance of providing additional funds for pre-K and the fully funding the existing K-12 program is part of her mission and that she would reach out and communicate with legislators.

As Harrison and state officials have noted, state revenue is growing, with increases of more than 5 percent the past two years, and revenue also is up for the current fiscal year, which started in July.

An estimated $285 million in additional funds would be required to fully fund MAEP, and every 1 percent in a pay raise for the state’s 30,000 teachers would cost about $16 million.

The budget proposed by the legislative leadership for the full Legislature to consider in 2014 maintains about $580 million in reserves, but some legislators say that figure is too generous.

Clearly, the revenue situation as it now stands allows for a full and vigorous debate about better funding for important, underfunded programs. The debate begins in less than two weeks.