OUR OPINION: Federal education funds critical to state’s schools

Issues affecting Mississippi stand at the center of this year’s campaigns for United States senator, and few would have predicted that federal spending for our state’s public schools, community colleges and universities would rise to passion and prominence.

The Republican primary, which has a June 24 runoff between incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and state Sen. Chris McDaniel, has become a battleground over the role of $800 million in federal funds in Mississippi’s $3.2 billion K-12 education budget, as well as an additional $700 million spent on the state’s community colleges and universities.

We editorially criticized McDaniel’s statement opposing federal funding for education when it was reported in April, and Cochran supporters have appropriately, if belatedly, made it an issue in the runoff.

McDaniel has offered no way to replace that approximately $1.5 billion in federal funds coming into the state to support its education system at all levels. He has recklessly suggested that the state could absorb those drastic cuts without any serious impact.

The logical fall-back position to replace $800 million for K-12 education (which Sen. Cochran and others helped direct toward Mississippi in policy and legislative language) is by turning to the state and to local school districts for additional tax revenue – in other words, a local tax increase to make up for what is already ours but which McDaniel would reject.

Hard hit by the loss of the $800 million would be special education (think of the debate about special education funds during the 2014 session; under the McDaniel plan there would be virtually no funds to debate). Pre-K education like the Early Childhood Education Center in Tupelo would disappear. An as-yet uncalculated number of teaching positions would be eliminated.

Federal funds for Mississippi’s community colleges are roughly equal to what the state provides. How could that blow be absorbed?

Universities, it’s fair to say, would be devastated by the loss of $400 million in federal funds.

The Cochran campaign’s belated activist joining of the debate on the side of sensible education funding policy is gratifying. Many conservative voices in Mississippi’s business community have said for decades that strengthening public education is the only hope for raising Mississippi’s quality of life. McDaniel’s ill-conceived position represents a backward option. It shouts for a larger response from the state’s business community and leadership.

A better-educated population with improved job skills is our only conceivable way off the economic bottom. Cutting one-fourth of the money spent on K-12 schools in Mississippi and gutting community colleges and universities would be a disastrous course to perpetual mediocrity.