The state Legislature established the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP, in 1997 to avoid equity lawsuits being filed across the country in states where inadequate funding, due to disparities between rich and poor school districts, usually led to lawsuits from citizens. Some states were being asked to fully fund schools based on constitutional provisions that required the states to do so.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, was one of the original signers of MAEP. Bryan described two kinds of lawsuits typically filed in the U.S. around 1997: school districts suing their state because they didn't have the funding to meet the requirement and school districts suggesting changes to state constitutions to provide enough funding for schools.
A group of senators got to work to avoid such lawsuits in Mississippi. Bryan said MAEP was developed in a bi-partisan agreement, with input from various representatives of the state. The team had to make sure that the formula gave enough money for a school district to remain accredited by the state and establish a funding baseline. When the formula finally got to Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice's desk, he vetoed it. The bi-partisan muscle flexed, however, and a two-thirds majority in both houses overrode Fordice and passed it.
Lawmakers did not fully fund the original formula immediately. In fact, the original plan was to phase in money over a period of five to six years. By 2002, the formula was 96.23 percent funded.
As an "adequate" education formula, Bryan said the total amount of fully funding MAEP was about 10 percent more than what the state was paying before 1997 on public education.
"The formula does a very good and inexpensive job of getting us to the point where school districts agree that it gives them enough money," Bryan said. "The cost of this is so little, it's a bargain—the fact that we're arguing about this shows how far off base we are."
The last year the formula was fully funded was 2008. Mississippi admittedly dealt with economic hardship during the recession like the rest of the country, but now revenue is coming back slowly, with about a 2-percent projected increase in economic growth for this coming year. Bryan said the state has the money now, but what used to be a bi-partisan issue has devolved to a purely political fight over ideology.
"The failure to fund the program at this point is not due to economics, it's due to political position," he said.
Corey Wiggins, director of the Hope Policy Institute, a think tank that uses data to analyze policies, said that, ultimately, the budgeting process of the Legislature reveals budgeting priorities.
"When you look at your society, those things that are the most important to you and those things that are top priority issues to you, those are the things that get money up front," Wiggins said.
Wiggins said the easiest way to deduce the state's priorities from the data is to compare what Mississippi spends per pupil to other states. Mississippi spends about $2,500 less per student than the national average. In 2013, the national average in per-pupil spending was $10,700, according to the Census Bureau; Mississippi spent $8,130 per-pupil in 2013. Only four states spend less than Mississippi on per pupil funding according to fiscal-year 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data.
"When we look at it (MAEP), we really don't put a lot of money into it compared to what other states are doing," Wiggins said.
Since 2002, MAEP has been underfunded $1.63 billion. The Legislature's authorization has hovered between 87 and 89 percent of full funding for the past five years, and fiscal-year 2013-2014 was the worst year for funding the formula, at 87.67 percent.
In fiscal-year 2014-2015, teacher pay raises that cost $64.6 million increased the MAEP budget, and the MAEP allocation was increased by $72.1 million. The formula is sitting at an 89.34 percent fully funded mark.
Initiative 42 does not ask the Legislature to bring funding levels for MAEP back up to 100 percent immediately. The initiative, instead, suggests a seven-year phase-in of funding from future increases in the general fund of no less than 25 percent. The target fiscal year date for full funding is fiscal-year 2022, keeping the formula fully funded from there on after.
How MAEP Affects School Districts
Investing in education is a task both sides of the political aisle claim to do. MAEP has been tweaked and adjusted as needed throughout its history, and parts of the formula, particularly the 8-percent guarantee in 2002, were a part of legislators recognizing school districts that were suffering from the formula in the beginning.
Sometimes, changes to MAEP can lead to things like the "63 Percent" rule that Jackson Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Sharolyn Miller says forces school administrators and teachers to work harder for their average daily attendance numbers.
Average daily attendance is counted in September and October, and students must be at school for at least 63 percent of the school day to be counted as in attendance. The Legislature passed the attendance rule in 2013 that said if a child "has an absence that is more than thirty-seven percent (37%) of the instructional day...the child must be considered absent the entire school day." The change came after speculation that school districts were inflating their average daily attendance numbers.
This past legislative session, a bill to change average daily attendance to "average daily membership" would have calculated that number over an average of the whole school year instead of counting students in September and October.
The bill did not pass, but Miller said it would have helped boost their average daily attendance numbers, allowing them to receive more MAEP funding. She said that some JPS schools have added health clinics to keep children in school even if they aren't feeling well because the school will lose needed funding if they miss too much, even if they're sick. All JPS students eat free breakfast and lunch, so not being able to eat can't keep them away, either.
"We do those things to encourage our children to make sure they're in school every day," Miller said.
The base student cost is re-calculated every four years, and that cost stays consistent across all school districts. The rest of the variables in the MAEP equation are district-dependent, relying mostly on average daily attendance and local contribution. Local contribution is determined by property-tax millage rates; frequently, the rate is higher in poorer districts as they have to offset the underfunding of MAEP.
In Jackson, a lot of government buildings, churches and universities do not pay property taxes. Miller said that, on the whole, the property values in Jackson have gone down compared to surrounding counties, making the base of taxpayers that contribute to JPS smaller and smaller.
Miller said this money primarily pays the bulk of operations and maintenance for JPS buildings and pay for all non-teacher positions (or, in some cases, additional teacher salaries). JPS' MAEP funding mostly goes to paying teacher salaries and benefits, so the district relies on the local contribution and donations from community members to help cover the cost of running one of the state's largest school districts. The district received $31.68 million in local contributions for this school year, but their total MAEP allocation equals $130.78 million.
In other words, the local contribution makes up less than 25 percent of the district's MAEP funding. Other districts dealing with a low taxpayer base likely deal with the same problems as JPS, Miller said, because without a substantial local contribution, a district is mainly working with MAEP funds.
Administrators are paid from the local contribution as well, Miller said.
"I've heard recently that we were requesting more money to pay for [administrative] raises, and that's definitely not the case," she said.
JPS employees that aren't teachers went for seven years without raises, due to a low local contribution and less than adequate MAEP funding.
Further compounding the problem is that adequate funding is more difficult to define for districts with more students, and Mississippi's few urban areas have challenges not faced by rural and suburban districts.
"What may be adequate for my children who are at a higher poverty level who have other needs may be a little bit different from a district that doesn't have some of the issues that we work with," Miller said.
"So adequate for us may be a little bit more than someone else."
Regardless of the school district's size, however, a low tax base contributing less to the local contribution will always leave school districts struggling to come up with additional money. Despite the difficult financial maneuvering Miller has to do in her role (such as leasing 23 new buses for the district, because the funds to purchase them up front weren't available), she said the formula is not the problem.
"The issue is not the formula; the issue is putting the money behind the formula because it does no good when you tell me, 'Here's where you would be, but be adequate and high performing anyway (but without the money),'" Miller said.
JPS has been able to make up for some lost funding and low local contribution through donations—several community groups or private citizens have helped JPS schools get WiFi, for instance.
MAEP as a formula and a policy relies on local communities and the Legislature to fund public schools in Mississippi. Ideally, effective economic development in places like Jackson will raise property tax revenues, thus raising the local contribution to JPS.
But, for local economic development to work, a place like Jackson needs better schools to attract and retain businesses and professional employees.
Wiggins said the revolving cycle of education leading to jobs leading to a stronger tax base (that then turns around and pays for education again) all begins with education in the first place.
"We've seen time and time again through research and data that investing in education is one of those things that we tend to get a big return on investment," Wiggins said. So if the state can't or won't hold up it's part of the bargain, it's not clear where the money can come from to get this cycle restarted.
For more education funding stories, visit jfp.ms/maep. Email reporter Arielle Dreher at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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