BOBBY HARRISON: The measure of success is what the Legislature approves

BOBBY HARRISON

BOBBY HARRISON

Education advocates used the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday earlier this week as an opportunity to rally at the Mississippi Capitol for full funding of education.

The hundreds participating in the rally left excited about the enthusiasm and attention the event received.

By those standards, the rally would have to be judged a success. But if the measure of success is whether the Legislature finally relents and fully funds public education, the likelihood of success is … not so much.

Similar rallies are held each year as Mississippi education funding falls further and further behind.

In the 2000s, former Gov. William Winter and Tupelo businessman and first chair of the state Board of Education Jack Reed led one of the biggest rallies seen in recent memory at the state Capitol. The effort did not produce full funding. In fairness, though, the effort might have prevented deeper cuts in education.

About that same time, the Mississippi Economic Council also advocated full funding.

And to top it off, during the same time period, Mississippi-born philanthropist Jim Barksdale, former head of Internet company Netscape, offered to provide $50 million to create a program to award students upon high school graduation if the Legislature would fund education at a higher level than was being contemplated. He did not ask for full funding at that particular time – just better funding.

State leaders of all ilks have said for years that a top priority for the state should be increasing the high school graduation rate. Barksdale stood ready to try a novel approach – pay students to graduate. He said the money could be put toward their future college education or even toward a start on life, such as for a first car. Barksdale, arguably one of the great innovators of our time, said the incentive might work.

We will never know. The Legislature did not take him up on his offer.

Little reason exists to believe it will be different during the 2014 session.

What is more likely to occur during the 2014 session is that Mississippi’s more than 30,000 kindergarten- through 12th-grade teachers will get a pay raise.

In the meantime, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program will continue to be underfunded. It has been underfunded about $1.2 billion since 2008.

The MAEP provides the state’s share of the basics of operating local school districts. There is a constant criticism that the MAEP formula creates unrealistic funding expectations for local school districts that the state cannot meet. But in reality, when MAEP is fully funded, the annual increase in the additional money the formula produces is minimal unless the state puts a large amount of new money into the formula, such as for a teacher pay raise.

Yes, if the state provides a pay raise for teachers it will mean in future years the amount of money the formula will produce for the local school districts will be increased. It is a kind of circular firing squad in that the state would be paying for a teacher salary increase while not meeting its current responsibility. In a sense, it could be argued that the Legislature will be mandating a pay raise, but in reality not providing the funds to pay for it.

But because almost everyone recognizes the importance of a pay raise for some of the lowest paid teachers in the nation, no education advocate is arguing that Mississippi teachers should not get a raise. There seems to be a sense that everyone supports a pay raise, and the fight for full funding will be delayed for another year.

Some people argue instead of having this constant fight the formula should be scrapped. True, perhaps, the formula, like everything else in government and private life, should be tweaked.

But the formula was designed to even the paying field between the rich and poor districts by allocating more state money to the districts with no property to tax to generate local revenue in support of their schools.

State leaders would be hard-pressed to find a method that made more sense or would withstand a court challenge over equity funding issues.

That is why a broad spectrum of people have come to the Capitol to advocate for funding of the Adequate Education program.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.