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Local Legislators weigh in on New Education Formula

Senate discussion about House Bill 957, or the “Mississippi Uniform per Student Funding Formula Act,” will begin next Wednesday, Feb. 28.

If passed, it will replace the Mississippi Adequate Education Program as the state’s formula for distribution of education funding. MAEP, which went into full effect in 2002 and was considered landmark legislation at the time, is now considered inadequate, according to Lafayette County’s Sen. Gray Tollison (R).

The new formula is based on an 80-page report from New Jersey-based group EdBuild, which was released in January 2017. The report shows the group’s findings and recommendations for how to better distribute state funding, as well as provides facts and figures about the state’s public education system.

Anyone can access the report, which explains some of the content of the bill, online. However, a recent article in Mississippi Today quoted several members of the state legislature saying their knowledge of what the new education formula will look like was limited.

District 12 Rep. Jay Hughes (D) is one of the legislators who says he is unclear about the details of the bill, because of the nature of decision-making regarding the document.

“There is not an elected official who knows what’s going on with education reform, because it is all decided behind closed doors,” Hughes said. “It’s whatever the leadership decides.”

Tollison, Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, says HB 957, which will not go into effect until 2021, will allow the state to appropriate funds in a more effective way.

“I think the thing about the old adequate education program is, it’s kind of run its course, and there’s some components in there that don’t make sense and are not as equitable,” he said. “We’re trying to create a more equitable formula and increasing, for example, the amount of money that goes to economically disadvantaged students.”

Tollison says the new formula won’t completely abandon all aspects of the MAEP, which was underfunded by $213 million for the current year. Certain aspects of the old formula that will carry over to the new are expected to be more transparent and predictable.

As for why the MAEP has been underfunded in recent years, Tollison says he attributes it to the state having “competing interests” and a limited amount of money.

“MAEP was fully implemented in 2002, then we had something called Hurricane Katrina that had a huge impact on our state, then we had the recession of 2009 and 2010,” he said. “Taking that into consideration, funding across all things, for Ole Miss, the Department of Mental Health, decreased. That was a situation that was bigger than just Mississippi, it was the whole country.“

How it Works

One of the big changes in the new formula is the amount of money allocated per student. The base cost per student will be around $4,800. Weights, or multipliers, are then added if the student is special needs, an English Language Learner, at-risk, gifted or in vocational or alternative programs.

A notable addition is ELL funding. Currently, Mississippi is one of only six states to provide no funding for ELL students. According to the EdBuild report, there are almost 10,000 ELL students statewide, 276 of whom attend schools in Lafayette County or Oxford school districts. EdBuild recommends that the state includes a weight of between 15 and 25 percent for ELL students in order to align with national practices.

According to Tollison, the new formula will help more schools receive more funding, although the amount of money allocated for primary and secondary education in the state will not change for the first two years. However, the way those funds are distributed could change between the bill’s passing and full implementation in 2025.

Under the MAEP, which also uses a base student funding formula, some school districts are still receiving funding for student populations that are lower than they were when MAEP was implemented. According to Tollison, this can be attributed to a loss of student population, primarily in rural districts.

“Unfortunately, they’ve lost a lot of student population, but you’re basically paying for students who are no longer there. Moss Point is one, Montgomery County, there’s some in the Delta, but certainly Moss Point,” he said. “You have a lot of population lost in the Delta, but at the same time, you have population growth in Oxford, DeSoto County, Madison, Rankin, the Coast and other districts that have seen a lot of growth. We want to make sure that each year, we’re sending the money where the students are.”

While it may seem as though school districts with higher student populations will receive more than the rural districts, especially considering weights added to the base student cost, Tollison says that is not the case. He says rural schools will “probably actually receive more money” thanks to low-income and rural community add-ons.

EdBuild’s Findings

In addition to providing recommendations for the new education formula, the EdBuild report also found what Tollison says are positive statistics.

In terms of teacher-student ratios, Mississippi ranks below the national average, with 14 students per teacher. The report also included statistics about non-instructional staff, saying “It is remarkable that Mississippi is staffing its schools so robustly within its current funding. Based on existing ratios and average salaries for all non-teacher positions, funding for school staffing salaries and benefits would equal $655 per student. Funding these positions at the national average student-to-staff ratio would total just $523 per student.”

There has also been a push for more Advanced Placement classes and dual enrollment opportunities in recent years, which Tollison says will only continue to grow under the new formula.

Population-Based Funding

Tollison admits that although there are outstanding public schools, some are not making the grade. However, he says lawmakers are working on alternative ways to improve those schools.

“Everybody wants to be able to go to an Oxford. But unfortunately, if you live in Humphreys County, you can’t go to Oxford,” he said. “We’re actually working on trying to provide more online courses that are proven to provide a quality education, because in some circumstances, you might not be getting the best teachers in front of some of our students in the rural areas.”

According to Tollison, a major focus for the Senate Education Committee is being “as equitable as we can” in terms of distributing money to school districts, taking into account that some are wealthier than others. The new formula is expected to help strike a balance between the wealthier districts and other districts, without penalizing the former.

The senator, who represents Lafayette and Panola counties, says schools like South Panola will receive more funding once the new formula is fully implemented.

“You have a somewhat higher number of students in poverty in South Panola, so as a result of that, they will get an increased amount than they get now,” he said. “That changes year to year based on student population, but I would assume their student population would stay roughly the same.”

According to the EdBuild Study, approximately 35 percent of South Panola’s student population is considered low-income. By comparison, the report shows approximately 20 percent of LCSD students and 25 percent of OSD students are considered low-income.

At the end of the day, Rep. Jay Hughes says seeing the bill on paper is one thing, but putting it into practice will be quite another.

“Schools are going to be underfunded until the people wake up and start putting people in office who will make education the single most important issue,” Hughes said. “The most important thing is letting the teachers teach and letting the students learn, not having a congressman or lobbyist micromanaging the way their classrooms operate.”

To read the entire EdBuild report, visit http://www.legislature.ms.gov/Documents/Final%20EdBuild%20Recommendation.pdf.

Other local representatives did not respond to a request for comment.