By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Education funding could become a focal point of the hotly contested U.S. Senate runoff between six-term incumbent Thad Cochran and his challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
Cochran supporters have begun zeroing in on McDaniel’s remarks earlier this year when he advocated eliminating federal funding of education.
Former Gov. Haley Barbour, who helped form a pro-Cochran political action committee, has said he believes McDaniel’s stance on education funding will help expand the runoff electorate in Cochran’s favor.
Of McDaniel’s position on federal education spending, “That’s just radical,” said Barbour, whose Mississippi Conservatives PAC spent an estimated $1.7 million in support of Cochran before the June 3 first Republican primary, according to media reports.
Roughly one-fourth of K-12 education spending in Mississippi – $834 million in the current fiscal year – is from federal funds, and hundreds of millions of additional federal dollars flow to the state’s community colleges and universities.
Not long after McDaniel garnered about 1,400 votes more than Cochran in the June 3 primary but did not capture the majority needed to avoid the runoff, Barbour spoke of the need to expand the electorate by attracting new voters to the Republican primary.
People who didn’t vote in the June 3 Democratic primary are eligible to go to the polls in the June 24 runoff, even if they didn’t vote in the first Republican primary.
Barbour said McDaniel’s position in opposing federal education funding in the state, as spelled out in an April 10 campaign speech reported by The Associated Press, would be devastating not only for schools, community colleges and universities, but also for the Mississippi economy, which relies on schools for a quality work force.
McDaniel said in the April speech that federal funding for education is not mentioned in the Constitution, so education for the federal government is “none of their business.” In an April interview with The Associated Press the day following the speech, he said if the federal Department of Education were eliminated, state and local governments could handle education funding on their own.
When the AP asked him if the state could handle the loss of federal money, McDaniel responded: “I think Mississippi, if it’s allowed to keep more of its tax revenue, could offset those losses.”
On Monday, McDaniel campaign spokesman Noel Fritsch said the primary point McDaniel was making is that the U.S. Department of Education should be eliminated. He said that is a traditional Republican position held by former President Ronald Reagan.
Fritsch said, “It’s unfortunate that Thad Cochran and his allies are spouting Democratic scare tactics about the dangers of fiscal responsibility. Chris McDaniel’s position is that of most Mississippians. We need to be good, conservative stewards of the taxpayer dollar.
“Education is a vital and core part of government and Chris supports efforts to improve education in Mississippi, but because Thad knows he can’t win with Republicans he is going to use Democratic talking points to try to scare people into voting for him. It won’t work and quite frankly it’s sad.”
Barbour estimated the state gets more than $1.5 billion per year in federal education funds. K-12 spending for special education includes school nutrition and Title I for poor children. Community colleges and universities get funds for financial aid while community colleges get work force training funds and universities receive similar funds, plus research grants.
Kell Smith, a spokesman for the state Community College Board, confirmed that the 15 community colleges receive $248 million, “a good deal of this coming indirectly from Pell Grants our students receive” while they receive $258 million annually in state funding.
“The difference between McDaniel and Cochran is dramatic,” Barbour said, adding the incumbent has long supported federal education funding on the federal level.
In a statement late Monday, Jordan Russell, a spokesman for the Cochran campaign, said, “Sen. Cochran believes education decisions are best made at the local level. He is a strong, consistent supporter of public education in Mississippi including K-12, community and junior colleges, and our universities because he knows a high-quality education is a key to providing opportunities for Mississippians.
“Judging from his comment on April 10th, Chris McDaniel’s position on public education would mean drastic cuts to our schools and universities. That’s another clear contrast between the two candidates for U.S. Senate.”