Fully funded ed program would strain Mississippi budget

RIGGED PLAYING FIELD: THE Mississippi Adequate Education Program has been a political football since 1997.

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

If the Mississippi Adequate Education Program allocation is fully funded, the Legislature will have to make some tough decisions.

The resultant cuts to agencies or tax increases won’t be popular.

A possible ballot initiative for a constitutional amendment in 2015 and a lawsuit by former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove are driving the increase. The MAEP, passed by the Legislature in 1997 over a veto by then-Gov. Kirk Fordice, is a complex equation used to compute “adequate” funding state K-12 education.

It has been fully funded just twice since its passage because the law, as written, doesn’t have any means of enforcement.

K-12 education accounted for 35.14 percent of the state’s more than $6 billion overall budget. The Mississippi Legislature increased K-12 education funding by 3.8 percent for fiscal 2015 — from $2,062,543,065 in 2014 to $2,134,674,610.

If the MAEP figure for 2016 —$2,466,356,110 — was funded, K-12 education’s share of the budgetary pie would increase to 40.6 percent. Sure, a 5.46 increase in education’s piece of the pie sounds reasonable, but when that figure represents $331,681,500, that’s not chump change.

“It means when we have to put more money there, we have less money to put elsewhere,” Mississippi Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn said. “That’s the bottom line. There aren’t but two places to get money, taxes and cuts. Not a whole lot of options.”

That’s more than the state spent in 2015 on community colleges ($258 million), mental health programs ($244 million) and would represent huge chunks of the budgets for higher education ($746 million) and corrections ($346 million).

Even if the state’s general fund revenue increases, as predicted, it probably won’t be enough to stave off cuts to other agencies.

Keith Plunkett, a Republican political and policy consultant and a communication strategist in Mississippi, has a unique solution. Reform the MAEP formula to make it more accountable and ensure precious dollars go to the classrooms and not to administration and fully fund it.

“With millions in tax incentives that have disappeared into economic development black holes like KiOR and Twin Creeks, we Republicans just don’t have a very good argument against fully funding public education,” Plunkett said. “That’s why I think it’s time we do what needs to be done to study the formula and reform it, and use it as a way to bring about more meaningful education reform like school choice, vouchers and Educational Savings Accounts.”

It would be the ultimate way to turn disadvantage into advantage and take away a political issue from Democrats. One of the talking points about the ballot initiative involves K-12 education being “shorted” $1.5 billion in the past six years, which simply means the Legislature has not fully funded the MAEP allocation. K-12 spending has increased in the past three budget cycles.

Where have the increases gone? According to a 2013 report by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the number of school administrators in Mississippi from 1992-2009 increased by 24 percent while the number of students declined during that same period — by 2 percent.

Education reform advocates are in the catbird seat here if we stop to realize it and develop a sound strategy for approaching this,” Plunkett said. “There is a great opportunity here to implement a bold school choice model in these poorer districts that allows parents options, and that simultaneously frees up public educators to focus more on the classroom and less on administrative functions.”

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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