Calls to change MAEP funding formula have consequences

Published 6:10 am Wednesday, February 28, 2024

By Sid Salter

The Mississippi Adequate Education Formula had its genesis almost 30 years ago in politics – the politics of avoiding being forced to equalize public education funding at the tip of the spear of a federal lawsuit. 

Despite the noble intent of equalizing public school funding often assigned to evolving discussions of the formula, the fact is that it continues to be a highly political plan conceived not to “fully fund” education but to avoid losing in the federal courts. 

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Once again state lawmakers are confronting ongoing debate on the future of MAEP. Some lawmakers want to “fix” it. Others want to “replace” it with a new or different funding formula. Others want to add “school choice” or vouchers to the status quo as an alternative. 

MAEP was created in 1997 in reaction to lawsuits nationally from education advocacy groups which were successfully suing states on grounds that it was unconstitutional that students living in poorer school districts were being denied the same public education advantages being afforded to students in more affluent districts. 

Many of these lawsuits were coming out of rural school districts in Texas where predominantly Hispanic students were facing deep disparities in impoverished public school districts. Mississippi lawmakers saw those lawsuits as the ghosts of political Christmas future for Mississippi’s impoverished Black majority districts. MAEP was the eventual answer to that threat. 

To be fair, no small number of bi-partisan lawmakers wanted Mississippi to improve public education for all. Period. 

Over the years, the MAEP political narrative developed that altruistic Democrats led the fight to fully fund MAEP only to be stopped by anti-education Republican governors and legislative leaders. But in political reality, Mississippi has only “fully funded” MAEP twice and both times were in statewide election years (2003 and 2007) in which Mississippians elected GOP leadership to the Governor’s Mansion. 

During the administration of former Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, the Legislature “tweaked” MAEP to provide additional funds for so-called “high growth” school districts in 2005. It was a fairly easy sell in the Legislature. 

Why? Because most of those “high growth” school districts were located in the state’s top 10 Republican counties – including Rankin, DeSoto, Jackson, Lamar, Lauderdale, Madison, Jones, Harrison, Pearl River, and Lee – the counties that had the highest GOP margins of victory in the 2003 governor’s race. 

During the 2006 debates over high-growth school districts, Barbour was in danger of losing his iron grip on the state Senate on the MAEP issue – because senators in heavily Republican counties were being pressured by their constituents to fund MAEP to stave off local property tax increases for school support. 

But the eventual “tweaking” of MAEP included a mechanism to provide additional MAEP funds for “high growth” school districts and Barbour was the political beneficiary along with legislators who represented those “high growth” school district counties. 

That’s not to suggest that the “high growth” funds weren’t necessary or that Barbour should be criticized for any Machiavellian shenanigans in agreeing with the Legislature in tweaking the formula to provide them. But the political reality is that MAEP was closer to being fully funded in those Republican “high growth” strongholds than it was in the majority of school districts that were mostly rural, mostly poor, mostly African American, and for which MAEP was created in the first place. 

Need an example? With the “high growth” funds that year, the proposed MAEP funding level for the affluent DeSoto County School District would have been $122.7 million, less than 1 percent shy of the fully funded level of $123.8 million. 

But the Mound Bayou School District in impoverished Bolivar County was proposed to get $3.6 million in MAEP funds, which was about 4.2 percent shy of the fully funded level. 

This brings us back to the question that MAEP was supposed to have answered back in 1997 – don’t the children in Mound Bayou deserve the same place at the educational starting line as do the kids in Southaven or Olive Branch?


MAEP can certainly be changed or replaced. There’s nothing magic about it. But “school choice” won’t solve educational disparities or change the fact that all Mississippi children deserve an equal place at the starting line in public schools.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at