Tollison touts no budget cuts to education
By Rob Sigler
District 9 State Sen. Gray Tollison said this session was one of the more interesting sessions since he was elected 20 years ago.
Controversial House Bill 1523, the “religious liberties” legislation that was signed by Gov. Phil Bryant, he said was “difficult for a lot of people.”
“I think all states are struggling trying to strike a balance between competing rights,” the Republican said. “The free exercise of religion verses non-discrimination based on sexual orientation. I think this bill was mischaracterized and kind of snowballed. I hate that and regret that happened. I think we have to feel out some gray areas.”
Another hot topic over the summer but one that did not go far in the hallways of Jackson was the controversial flag issue. Tollison said he wished the topic had been presented to the legislature to get the flag changed and “get this issue behind us.”
“It’s time. And talking to people that maybe in the past have been opposed to it, they’ve grappled with it and come to terms understanding the need that this is not who we are as a state,” Tollison said. “I wouldn’t be surprised by the end of this three-year term if something is done.”
Tollison, who is chairman of the Senate education committee, said some good legislation was passed this session regarding education. Overall, education funding in Mississippi is $2.5 billion.
“In spite of cuts in a lot of state agencies, we held the line on education funding,” Tollison said.
Many state agencies suffered as much as 15 percent in cuts due to revenue shortfalls projected for the 2017 fiscal year budget that begins July 1. Projected estimates for the budget were down $150 million just before the session began.
“Revenues aren’t where we thought,” Tollison said. “We had to go back in and sharpen the pencil. It wasn’t easy. But we did some things we needed to do.”
The legislature did not pass a measure restructuring the Mississippi Adequate Education Funding formula for school funding. As far as state sources of revenue dedicated toward education, Mississippi ranks 20th in the nation.
“I think we will look at that this summer and try to figure out what to do with it,” Tollison said. “As a state if you compared apples to apples in per capita income, we’re doing a pretty good job of putting money into K-12 funding.”
Tollison would like to dedicate more funds to early education. As an example, $250,000 was dedicated to the Willie Price Lab School on the Ole Miss campus. The school is dedicated to early learning research. He would also like to target the needs of students more, rather than school needs.
“Looking more at terms of at-risk students, the definition of at-risk and pin-point more their needs,” Tollison said. “Other states have that student-weighted formula that do a better job of targeting students that need additional funds.”
While nothing was done with MAEP this session, a school-related proposal on charter schools was signed into law by Gov. Phil Bryant.
The law now limits students to attend a public charter school, but the change opened up enrollment for more students to attend charter schools. Currently Jackson Public Schools has two charter schools and only students in that district can attend.
The changes allow students from C, D or F districts to cross district lines and attend.
“For example, in the Jackson area of Hinds County, there were some students who wanted to attend, but couldn’t because they live in Hinds County,” Tollison said. “It also helps in rural areas where you have smaller districts. You can get a larger pool of potential students to enroll.”
Tollison favors charter schools.
“I think it brings a different way to educate kids,” he said. “We’re in the 21st century now and with technology and different methods of learning we need to recognize that one size does not fit all.”
Mississippi will no longer have elected school superintendents. It had been one of the few states in the nation that still held elections for the post. About half of the 130 elected school superintendents in the nation are in Mississippi public schools.
“That was probably the biggest education issue that has passed as chairman,” Tollison said. ”I think it’s a better model of school governance. It will make a big difference in some of the smaller school districts being able to hire somebody from across school district lines just like a football coach. Now you can hire all over the state and get the best person for the job instead of limiting to the people who reside in that district.”
The House passed a measure to lessen vaccination restrictions, but the bill came to Tollison’s committee and he did not bring it up, so it died.
“I think the law is as good as it is,” Tollison said. “I think we have one of the best laws in the nation. It was a tough issue. I sat down and talked to a lot of parents about this issue and am sympathetic to their circumstances, but at the same time we have an obligation to protect the public health of other children in our school system. Look at Memphis right now and outbreaks in other parts of the country. It’s due in part not only to the people not getting vaccination, but they may be more susceptible even with the vaccination. I think we need to leave well enough alone.”