Public school lobby claims win over rewriting state funding formula

Published 12:52 am Monday, March 5, 2018

JACKSON (AP) — Mississippi’s traditional public school lobby is not dead, any rematch over rewriting the school funding formula could have to wait until after the 2020 elections, and the prospect for increased funding of the current formula looks uncertain.

Those are among the takeaways after the effort replace the current Mississippi Adequate Education Program crumbled Thursday under the opposition of unified Democrats and a crucial minority of Republicans.

It was the refusal to go ahead by eight GOP senators that turned the tide in the 27-21 rejection of the bill, after many faced heavy lobbying from back home.

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Opponents marked down the vote of Ridgeland Republican Walter Michel, for example, after a Wednesday meeting with Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler and Parents Campaign board members Jamie Jarvis. That group lobbies for more funding for schools.

“We couldn’t be more appreciative and grateful for Walter listening and standing up for us and standing up for public education,” Jarvis, a Madison resident and former state parent of the year, said Friday.

Other GOP opponents said they heard from superintendents back home. Vancleave Republican Mike Seymour, for example, said the Poplarville school district was projected to gain the most of any district he represents under the new proposal, but said Superintendent Carl Merritt told him that he opposed the plan. Merritt didn’t return a phone call and an email Friday from The Associated Press.

Superintendents, teachers groups and others remain unwilling to give up on the adequate education program, which has only been fully funded twice since it was fully implemented. Particularly, they’re holding on to the independent calculation of how much money is needed for schools, saying lawmakers want to remove such a check to shield themselves from criticism. That’s even though the state Supreme Court ruled last year that the guarantee of full funding written into the law isn’t binding.

Shawn Brevard of Tupelo, who lobbied another Republican opponent, Sen. Chad McMahan of Guntown, said it felt like Republicans were trying to undermine funding and “get off the hook.”

“It felt so politically motivated,” she said. “It did not feel at all to me that it was for the right purposes.”

But Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison again said after the debate that more money for schools is unlikely while the old formula persists.

“If you’re going to put more funding into education going forward, you’ve lost confidence in this building in the old MAEP formula,” said Tollison, an Oxford Republican. “I think you’ve got to adopt this if we’re going to move forward to increase funding, so that you know the money is targeted to those students of greatest needs.”

The bill would have provided a base student cost of $4,800, allocated to educate a student with no special requirements. It would have added extra per-student amounts for the share of students in poverty, special education students, gifted students, high school students and those learning English. Extremely rural districts also would have gotten an extra bump.

The plan had called for guaranteeing no district would lose any money over the next two years, and agreed to spend $8 million above current levels in the upcoming budget to give more money to districts with increasing enrollment. But Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said those plans were off the table, saying some districts are likely to lose money under the old formula because enrollment is falling.

Tollison noted that big legislation often takes multiple tries to make it through the Legislature. But he also acknowledged that another attempt in 2019, months before every lawmaker will be up for election, could be unlikely. And after that, there will be a new governor, a new lieutenant governor, and some new legislators.

But that’s a long way away for Sen. Hob Bryan and other Democrats who blocked the plan.

“I’m going to get a good night’s sleep for the first time in two years,” Bryan, an Amory Democrat, said Thursday.