New education funding formula seeks $107M more for state aid to K-12 schools

Published 11:33 pm Wednesday, January 10, 2018

JACKSON (AP) — Leaders in the Mississippi House are seeking a new education funding formula that would require $107 million more than the state is spending this year to aid K-12 schools.

While their proposal would boost funding, it would be $157 million less than the current formula is recommending for next year. The Legislature has fully funded the formula — the Mississippi Adequate Education Program — only twice in 20 years. Lawmakers have spent $2.1 billion less than mandated levels since 2009.

The figures presented Wednesday by nonprofit group EdBuild generally follow the outlines of its proposal from last year . The plan starts with a base student cost, or amount allocated to educate a student with no special requirements, and then added extra per-student amounts proposed for special education students, gifted students, high school students and those learning English. Extremely rural districts also would get an extra bump.

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However, EdBuild Executive Director Rebecca Sibilia said House Speaker Philip Gunn mandated two changes from EdBuild’s 2016 proposal. First, Gunn seeks no change to property tax rules that cap a district’s current local property tax contribution at 27 percent of the combined state and local funding demanded by the formula.

EdBuild had recommended requiring property-rich districts to contribute more. That would have reduced state money needed for the new formula, but could have forced about 30 property-rich districts to raise taxes or cut spending. Sibilia reiterated Tuesday before a group of Democrats that she favors scrapping the 27 percent cap, saying it would increase state aid to property-poor districts.

Gunn’s scenario also would cut the base student cost from the $4,840 that EdBuild recommended last year to $4,800. That reduces state money needed for the new plan by $25 million. Gunn said $4,800, like $4,840, was within a range of $4,700 to $5,250 recommended by EdBuild.

Changes would be phased in over several years, with no district gaining or losing more than 3 percent in the first year.

Of the state’s 142 conventional school districts, 75 percent would get more money than today, while 25 percent would lose money. The biggest losers, on a per-student basis, would be the Montgomery County, Moss Point and West Bolivar school districts. The biggest gainers per student would be Claiborne County, Humphreys County and Benton County, all aided by the 10 percent proposed bump to rural districts. Mississippi’s largest district, DeSoto County, would be the largest overall gainer and among the top per-capita gainers.

Among winners, 17 districts would get so much more state aid that they would exceed the amount required to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program this year.

Republican legislative leaders hired EdBuild after voters rejected enshrining a mandate for higher funding in the state constitution in 2015. They say they want a new formula that links money more explicitly to the needs of each student. A new formula could also end the annual exercise of computing the shortfall, because there might not be any way of computing how much money is required besides what lawmakers say.

The shortfall is a political headache for Republicans, who have been bashed by Democrats— even though funding also fell short when Democrats were in charge.

“I think it’s an effort to solve a political problem and not an actual policy problem,” said Rep. Jarvis Dortch, a Raymond Democrat. “They don’t want to have MAEP hanging over their head going forward.”

House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Clinton Republican, said Wednesday that he doesn’t anticipate any mandate that the new formula be recalculated on a set schedule, saying he wants to preserve “flexibility.” No bill has yet been introduced.

Without a prescribed mechanism to adjust funding, state spending could fall behind inflation. That could even be true even during a phase-in, if it lasts long enough. Mississippi’s spending has lagged inflation since 2008, the last time lawmakers fully funded the current formula. In real terms, formula spending is 12 percent lower than at 2008’s peak.

Republicans have repeatedly said no one getting state money should be guaranteed a rate of inflation.

Democrats, citing the failure to fund the current formula, questioned whether the GOP could even find the money to phase in the current proposal.

“Why would a citizen or a legislator in the state of Mississippi believe we’re going to fund education?” asked Rep. Steve Holland, a Plantersville Democrat.