State pols stiffing public education

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

This columnist repeatedly labeled former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s call to fund education first and fully a political stunt designed to help him in an upcoming election year.

To this day, I believe just that. But I also believe Musgrove honestly cared about education and wanted to leave it better than he found it. Education is certain to be one of Musgrove’s legacies when people look back on his service.

Past an election stunt and political legacy, the notion education should be funded first and fully is just a sound investment in the future of our state, an investment that looks to be a one-time deal in Mississippi politics.

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Gov. Haley Barbour, in contrast to Musgrove, is walking stride-for-stride with the Legislature when it comes to budget recommendations for public education. Said recommendations are anything but &8220;first and fully.&8221;

Legislative leaders, including House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, have said they want to wait on funding education because to fund education first would mean that it would be locked in. In the event of higher-than-expected revenue streams, the Legislature might possibly give public education more money toward the end of a term than at the beginning.

Hogwash! It is clear public education is back on the chopping block. If the Legislature funded public education at the same level as it did for FY04 &045; $1.76 billion &045; then public education would still be short for what it needs this year. But the Legislature has recommended a funding level of nearly 5 percent less than that of last year at $1.67 billion.

Barbour concurs with the Legislature. His budget proposal shows cuts over last year’s funding numbers across the board in public education, including more than $11 million in administrative costs, more than $60 million in the Adequate Education Program and more than $1 million in vocational and technical funds. The idea that Barbour and the Legislature would inflict such deep cuts on public education is made more absurd by their commitment to job-force training programs. In Barbour’s defense, his budget recommendations for higher education include more funding than legislative recommendations.

In FY04, higher education received approximately $621 million in total appropriations. The Legislature is recommending less than $530 million for FY05, nearly a 15-percent cut for our state colleges and universities. Barbour wants to keep funding at the same level as FY04, a level that is more acceptable but will still cause a financial crunch for our public institutions of higher learning. Furthermore, rest assured that any shortfall will be passed on to our young people in pursuit of a better education when they see their tuition continue to rise.

Mississippi cannot climb from the bottom of the public education pile if the state does not step up and do what is required for schools to operate at a sufficient level. Many of our districts are rural districts serving a disadvantaged population. These schools receive state money for free and reduced lunches and other assistance programs, the programs most needed and ironically the ones that will see the deepest cuts.

If we continue to cut public education, then the fight to recruit more teachers will grow increasingly harder. Lawmakers and the governor can blame the need for cuts on the teacher payraise package, but the truth is that more money is needed because the teacher pay raise package was anemic and will still leave Mississippi dead last in teacher pay among the Southeastern states when it is fully implemented.

Barbour and the Legislature are short-changing public education. It is a sad, irrefutable fact. Musgrove’s political stunt might not have won him the election, but at least it helped public education.

Sam R. Hall

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