When Republicans took over the Mississippi House in 2011, there were certainly a few things high on the to-do list to make good to the voters that put them there. But making arrangements for education innovation and breaking the political hammer lock of teacher unions, liberal interest groups and education administrators over education spending to allow for innovations Charter Schools, Education Savings Accounts and generally how we allocate education money was high on the list of things to do for Republicans.
While there have been great strides in education funding and innovation, the one political driving force at the core of the education problem has been the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) formula. At its core, it funds schools and not students and is designed to keep the status quo firmly in place for the billions of dollars spent by grown ups regardless of the best interest of students. A lot has happened since MAEP was introduced in 1997 and since Republicans took control of the Legislature in 2011. The formula has been used as a political cudgel over the years and Republicans, to their detriment, have allowed it to go on. It’s prohibitively complex and nearly impossible to understand for legislators and parents.
The current MAEP formula doesn’t account for “new” students that present themselves for school in August. High growth districts are funded based on the previous year’s enrollment. For growing and high performing districts, that volume could drift upward hundreds of new students or more yet be funded at old data numbers. Conversely, some lower performing school districts featuring high out-migration often lose students but keep their funding in place oftentimes multiple years past their actual student population.
Legislative Republicans (some conservative and some not) have collectively failed on their commitment to reform the core of education funding, and it’s time to fix that in the 2021 Legislative session.
MAEP has been the scorecard. It is a bad formula and it makes it too easy for liberal journalists and special interest groups to whipsaw Republicans, whose main mission has been to get more money into the classroom (not in administrators pockets and not to create a public jobs program at the expense of educating kids). Article after article after article after editorial after editorial couched in the most dire terms are slanted to say “the legislature underfunded MAEP” by $X. The insinuation is clear – that Republicans don’t care about funding education. And Republicans have essentially been content to just sit there and take it. Politically, that’s dumb AND it has the added benefit of being completely fixable.
Add to that how many dollars we spend outside the classroom. Last year, Auditor Shad White put out a report saying that we could raise teacher pay $11,000 if we just cut down on the amount of out of classroom spending.
Remember that in 2015, liberal interests groups locally and nationally spent enough money to burn a wet mule trying to get Initiative 42 passed, which would have essentially replaced the legislative function with a judicial fiat from Hinds County. Voters wisely dismissed that ploy. Then in 2018, led by largely by Speaker Philip Gunn, an effort to reform MAEP had real traction in the legislature. Unfortunately, the effort died in the then-Lt. Governor Tate Reeves’s Senate chamber after a handful of suburban Republicans got weak-kneed on the final vote killing the effort for reform in the last session before an election year.
First the good news. We spend more dollars in real terms on education per pupil in Mississippi than we ever have. We also spend more dollars on K-12 education than we ever have. When you spend more than you ever have and yet remain “underfunded” to a formula, the problem isn’t the funding . . . it’s the formula.
The bad news is the formula hasn’t worked well, and now with the COVID pandemic even liberal media outlets are now coming around to the reality that the MAEP problem is worse. The number of students attending schools has declined precipitously due to COVID and the availability of other options to families, including homeschooling, are having families move away from traditional public school enrollment for their kids.
And because average daily attendance is a cornerstone of the formula, the MS Dept of Education is now suggesting that we use historical averages of student attendance to formulate funding for the FY 2022 school year. Essentially school districts and the MDE have no earthly idea how many students are attending or will be attending or at what frequency and yet legislators and administrators remain trapped with MAEP which hasn’t worked and is particularly unsuited for the current circumstance.
It’s the year after an initial post-election year session. This is when you get hard things done. Whether you’re a Republican who is for actually reforming how we fund our schools for the right reasons or whether you’ve now just come to the plain realization that, especially incorporating the dynamics of COVID-19, that MAEP is no longer workable, it’s time for Republicans (and Democrats) to make good to bring long term order and progress into how we fund schools.
Mississippi kids are counting on it.