JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Despite an eventful couple of days in discussions about rewriting the state education funding formula, the public is no closer to knowing what changes lawmakers will consider to the current Mississippi Adequate Education Program.
Instead, Mississippians got a lot of outrage from people who oppose changes because they don't trust Republican legislators.
First, there was Tuesday's detour into the Legislature's longstanding exemption of itself from public records laws over demands that lawmakers release their contract with EdBuild, the consulting group hired to recommend changes to the formula. The House Management Committee voted that contracts made by that committee "shall be confidential and shall not be released to any person or entity, except as specifically directed by the House Management Committee only when the committee deems necessary for the execution of the contract." Lawmakers are allowed to read the contracts, but aren't supposed to tell their constituents any details.
Beyond "we've always done it this way," it's unclear why lawmakers chose a path of secrecy that brought swift public criticism, with even Republican Gov. Phil Bryant declining to come to their defense. Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, said after reading the contract that "it is as dry as a 5-gallon bucket of baby powder."
Then came a public hearing Thursday where people were invited to make comments on possible changes. It wasn't a very representative sample of public opinion, being heavily weighted to public school parents from Madison County.
The room was heavily salted with people who have long pushed for lawmakers to fully fund the current formula, instead spending $100 million to $200 million less each year than the formula describes as adequate. Speakers, not surprisingly, were hostile to efforts led by Republicans who have repeatedly said they think the formula is wasteful or ineffective.
"Mississippi parents are tired of excuses and empty promises from our leaders," said Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents' Campaign, a public schools advocacy group.
Republican lawmakers successfully persuaded voters in 2015 to reject a proposed state constitutional amendment meant to require full funding, arguing Initiative 42 would improperly strip budget control from lawmakers and give it to judges. That election may have led to the decision to try to rewrite the current formula.
Staffers and lawmakers could design a process that would invite broader participation into questions of how much Mississippi should spend and how it should distribute those dollars, but it's not clear if they will. After all, as shown by both the Initiative 42 debate and the recent House committee action on contract secrecy, there's a long tradition of Mississippi legislators asserting their supremacy.
In the meantime, it's not really clear who's running the show when it comes to the current rewrite process.
Senate President Pro Tem Terry Burton, R-Newton, said he favored having more public hearings in locations around the state, but said that was up to EdBuild. However, EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia said the decision on whether there would be more hearings was up to legislative leaders.
Sibilia said that, so far, EdBuild employees had visited a magnet elementary school near the Capitol in Jackson, plus schools in Clinton and Madison County. In a state where two thirds of the population lives outside metropolitan areas, that's not terribly representative. She said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves' office was handling arrangements for her and her employees to visit schools.
Time's running out, though. The 2017 legislative session starts Jan. 3, and Sibilia said EdBuild is aiming to deliver recommendations in December.