OUR OPINION: MAEP’s objective goal still elusive

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program has been around for more than 15 years and took full effect in 2002. Since that time, only twice – in 2003 and 2007, both election years – has the Legislature done what the law required and met the formula for fully funding schools in a manner deemed “adequate.”

There’s always an excuse, and the excuses were easier to come by when the bottom fell out of the economy a few years ago and state revenues took a dive. But the excuses are wearing thin.

State revenues reached an all-time record of $5.1 billion in the fiscal year that ended June 30. Now comes the news that lower expenditures in recent years have affected the number the formula projects as full funding. When the Legislature convenes in January, it will likely cost at least $28 million less to fully fund MAEP for the next fiscal year.

Still, no one’s predicting full funding. So accustomed have legislators become to ignoring what the law requires that the majority – or at least the legislative leadership and governor – have no plans to turn over a new leaf and follow it.

House Speaker Philip Gunn expresses frustration with the phrase “full funding,” calling it “so subjective.” Actually, it is anything but. The formula, which takes into account the property tax wealth of local districts to help provide equity for poorer districts, is complicated. But it produces a per pupil expenditure number, and that number is objective, at least as the law is set up. You either reach it or you don’t.

Had the number been reached over the last six years, Mississippi’s K-12 schools would have gotten close to $1.3 billion more than they have.

Some MAEP critics’ solution to the failure to meet the legal formula is to change the formula to call for less. That would be a mistake.

Accountability standards for Mississippi schools have gotten more strenuous in recent years. They’re going to get much tougher as new state mandates and the Common Core national standards take effect. Money certainly won’t automatically improve performance, but resources are going to be even more important to improving student achievement in the future. And the equity provision of MAEP – giving students in poor areas something approaching a level playing field – is critical from both a moral and practical standpoint.

MAEP passed with bipartisan support in the Legislature, and it needs a new bipartisan coalition to finally make its objective definition of full funding a priority goal.