Consider Montana in school funding

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

State lawmakers take notice: Mississippi is one of only five states in the nation that has not been sued over education funding in the last 30 years.

This fact comes from the Billings Gazette in Montana, a state that currently is fighting a lawsuit over how their legislature goes about funding public education.

The newspaper details how conducted educational studies in almost every other state in the nation have led to a court challenge of how lawmakers not only fund education but how they distribute the money from county to county.

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Of the 45 states that have been sued, approximately 70 percent have found themselves on the losing end, according to the newspaper.

The newspaper’s account of the lawsuits and the trends leading to it are quite interesting and hit close to home in Mississippi. Allison Farrell of the Billings Gazette’s state bureau writes:

&8220;Montana’s adequacy study, commissioned by the coalition of plaintiffs that sued the state, concludes that Montana needs to pump up to $350 million more each year into K-12 education.

&8220;A recent study of North Dakota’s funding formula found that state spending on education there needs to increase 31 percent, and an Arkansas study concluded that the state needs to provide an additional $848 million per year to meet its constitutional obligation.

&8220;It seems that funding for education can no longer swing with the political wind, analysts say.&8221;

In Mississippi, the political wind is blowing, and most of it is hot air. What is happening in Montana might rightly serve as a warning to lawmakers here, who on the Senate side originally refused to fund education fully, then killed a House bill that funded education fully and now is working on a plan that shortchanges funding proposals by the State Department of Education.

Most of the lawsuits look at how much money is being spent per pupil and how much money is being spent in each county.

In looking at Mississippi, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that Mississippi spent $3,139 per pupil for the school year ending in 2000. Compare that to states that recently have faced and lost court battles over education funding: Montana with $3,804 per pupil, Arkansas with $3,780 per pupil, North Dakota with $2,923 per pupil, Texas with $4,166 per pupil and Maryland with $3,320 per pupil.

According to the Gazette, Montana is appealing its ruling; nonetheless, a heated legislative battle over state education funding is expected.

Other states, however, are going about the business of finding extra funds. The Gazette reported that Arkansas increased its sales tax while Maryland passed a tax bill increasing sin taxes. Other states, the Gazette reports, are considering a lottery.

Montana’s case is different than most in that their disbursement of money seems more skewed. In other words, some counties get a lot more per pupil than do other counties. That is not the case in Mississippi, according to the NCES, which shows approximately a $1,000-per pupil difference between the highest and lowest paid counties.

In Texas, lawmakers are facing very much what Montana is facing. Texas state law funds education primarily through land taxes. This system, however, is creating an unequal distribution of educational funds from wealthier to poorer areas where property values differ greatly.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is reportedly considering a special session to deal with education funding issues, including the idea of raising sin taxes.

Our legislators have the opportunity to make Mississippi stand apart from other states by funding education at strong levels. They missed the chance to do so first this year and make education a top priority.

However, they can correct that mistake with full funding and a renewed commitment to doing better in the future.

Sam R. Hall

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