School Funding Formula Looms as Top 2017 Issue for Lawmakers | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

School Funding Formula Looms as Top 2017 Issue for Lawmakers

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The top issue for Mississippi's Legislature when it returns Tuesday is education funding, but Republican leaders' plans remain to be seen.

Lawmakers hired a firm called EdBuild in October to recommend changes to the 20-year-old Mississippi Adequate Education Program. But EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia said Wednesday that her group's recommendations still weren't finished. She said she wants to hand them to lawmakers by Saturday.

Sibilia said she doesn't anticipate EdBuild recommending less money than Mississippi is currently spending, and House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, has said he's looking for more efficiency, not less funding. But any changes would result in losses for some districts and gains for others unless lawmakers find money to increase total spending.

The debate could decide how much a rural district gets to run buses or how much a town with Spanish-speaking students gets to teach them English. It could affect how much local districts levy in property taxes.

Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and others say Mississippi will spend more on K-12 and the formula this year than in any previous year. That's true, but doesn't account for inflation over time. Adjusting for inflation, Mississippi spent more state dollars on K-12 every year from 2004 to 2010.

Lawmakers have fully funded the formula only twice. From 2009 through the current budget year, funding has fallen a cumulative $1.9 billion short, including a $172 million less than the $2.43 billion demanded this year.

Democrats blame Republicans for the shortfalls in recent years, but Democrats also failed to provide full funding when they controlled the Legislature. The politics culminated in a proposed constitutional amendment to require full funding. Voters rejected it in 2015 at the urging of Republican leaders.

The formula calculates a cost per student, and then "adds on" more money for programs the state pays for on a cost basis, such as special education. Sibilia has said her group is likely to recommend eliminating add-on funding, and instead create a student cost that is weighted to address needs. Republicans have praised such student-based funding, but it's also clear they'd like the debate about the shortfall to go away.

"The formula that we're trying to achieve is a more student-based. The one we have now is more program-based ... and it always just spits out a number that was unachievable," Gunn told reporters in early December.

Some legislators say they don't get credit for $275 million spent on K-12 functions outside the formula. One way to end the underfunding debate might be to shift some of that money into the formula, making districts responsible for expenses.

In public comments, lawmakers remain focused on their concern that spending on administration — principals, superintendents and personnel — has increased too much. However, Sibilia has said her group generally favors allowing districts spend money as they please, leaving it unclear how lawmakers will mandate less administrative spending.

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