Changes to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program are likely to be on the legislative agenda and horizon, but lawmakers must proceed with caution when tampering with certain components of the formula.
MAEP is not a simple formula. Even well-intentioned tinkering with parts of the formula can and will harm school funding, particularly in places with little revenue coming from the local tax base.
As the education-funding conundrum sits now, school districts rely on three pots of money from local, state and federal dollars. When the state dollars don't fill needs, most districts turn to their local tax base, which supports public schools through local ad valorem property taxes or federal dollars. And sometimes they have to get creative to accommodate chronic underfunding.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves' recent suggestion that the state should fund schools based on how effectively districts spend their tax dollars is dangerous because it takes money to be effective. And a 2013 legislative report found only 10 districts in the state that spent less than 60 percent on instructional costs shows this is a red herring.
Even if there are more districts on that list today, it's a jump in logic to presume a direct correlation—positive or negative—between instructional spending and a school district's grade. Jackson Public Schools, which has a D grade, spent 66 percent of its budget on instructional expenses in the 2012-2013 school year. In the same year, Madison County Schools spent 70 percent of its budget on instructional costs but is considered an A district.
Something isn't right here, and warrants deeper investigation. In the meantime, legislative leaders shouldn't rush to develop policy based on fuzzy math. Support for struggling students in low-performing districts could come in the form of more teachers, interventionists and specialized courses that will all cost more money than the district has now—not less. MAEP hasn't been fully funded in a long time, and the Legislature should attempt to fully fund it first before taking the smoke-and-mirrors approach of redefining the word "adequate" in order to slash public-education funding. There's a saying in education-policy circles that although money doesn't solve everything, most solutions do cost money. The same is true in the business arena, in fact.
The accountability rankings in low-performing rural and inner-city school districts may reflect the need to trim waste, but it's wrongheaded to assume that high-performing districts, which tend to be more affluent, perform well because they manage their money better than poor districts. That is dangerous, faulty logic.
If investing in children is what our lawmakers really wants, they should learn from school-district leaders and officials themselves what the consequences of tampering with parts of MAEP will be. Listen to people who support public education.
The future of the state's education system, and kids, is all that's at stake, so proceed with caution.