Saga leading to stinging education loss began six years ago

Published 8:00 am Sunday, October 9, 2022

By Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today

Six years ago this week, House Speaker Philip Gunn and then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves held a surprise news conference to announce their intention to scrap the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula that determines the amount of state funds each local school district should receive.

Then-Gov. Phil Bryant quickly jumped on board.

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Seldom, if ever, has an initiative supported so publicly by what was then the three most powerful people in state government failed so spectacularly.

The legislative leadership quickly contracted with New Jersey-based EdBuild to develop a new funding formula with hopes of enacting it as soon as the 2017 legislative session. Despite the support of the political triumvirate, the plan stalled during the 2017 session.

Not to be deterred, the leadership came back in the 2018 session with a renewed commitment to replace the MAEP. The plan did pass the House but was defeated in the Senate by a combination of all the Democrats, allied with a group of Republicans, much to the chagrin of Reeves, then the presiding officer of the upper chair.

After that stunning defeat, little was heard about the rewrite. During the 2019 state elections, Reeves, who ran and won the office of governor, seldom talked about the need to scrap the MAEP. Gunn and other legislative incumbents running for re-election also were mum for the most part about the need to replace the funding formula.

Crickets all around.

In the new term, after that 2019 election, the issue has not resurfaced. It is of note that Delbert Hosemann, who won the office of lieutenant governor in 2019, was supported significantly by many of the education groups that opposed efforts to replace the MAEP.

When building their case for the rewrite, the state’s political leadership argued the new funding formula would be more efficient in getting to the students the money needed to provide a quality education.

“Doing what’s best for kids, we believe, is increasing funding in the classroom while not increasing funding in the district office,” Reeves said at the time.

But the leadership sent mixed messages. They contended, almost simultaneously, that the new formula would provide more funds for local schools while maintaining that the state could not afford MAEP.

“To fully fund MAEP is impossible if other essential services are to be provided to Mississippians,” wrote House Education Chairman Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, at the time. But at the same time, Gunn and others were offering charts showing local school districts would get more funds under the new EdBuild formula.

Both could not be true.

The MAEP was considered landmark legislation when it was enacted in 1997. It developed an “objective” formula to determine the amount per pupil needed to provide an adequate education. Each district would be responsible for providing a minimum level of those funds through local property taxes. Wealthier districts would provide a greater share because their property taxes would generate more revenue. The state would provide a greater share of the funding in the poorer districts.

The formula is credited with Mississippi not losing an equity funding lawsuit. The equity funding lawsuits maintained that states were not properly funding poorer districts. Many states lost those lawsuits in the 1980s and 90s, including Arkansas and Texas.

While still considered landmark legislation still to this day, the MAEP has been fully funded only twice since it was fully enacted — the last being in 2007. In that year, nearly all politicians running for office, including incumbent Gov. Haley Barbour, pledged that fully funding MAEP would no longer be an issue. But in 2008, the so-called Great Recession hit and MAEP has not come close to being fully funded since.

For the current school year, the program is underfunded $279.3 million and has been underfunded $3.35 billion since 2008.

State Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, helped write the school funding formula in 2007 and made the motion in the 2018 session that killed the effort to replace the formula.

He said the whole effort to scrap the formula was “to remove an objective method of funding the schools so that people could not identify by how much they (schools) were being underfunded.

“That objective formula was going to be replaced with the speaker saying how much to fund the schools.”

Under the replacement formula, the Legislature, instead of that objective formula, would determine the per pupil amount needed to provide a quality education.

Whether there will be an effort to make the rewrite of the MAEP or its underfunding an issue in the 2023 campaign season remains to be seen.

But what is certain: during the period where the MAEP was underfunded by $3.3 billion, the state Legislature approved tax cuts that will total about $1.5 billion.

This analysis was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.