Legislative leaders recently hired EdBuild, a New Jersey-based education-consulting firm, to review the state's public-education funding formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. A review is appropriate and timely. Every public program should be reviewed periodically for efficiency, effectiveness and need.
However, many public-education supporters' fear that the leadership will use this as a chance to reduce education funding and increase the number of charter schools and school-voucher programs is not without merit.
The Legislature adopted MAEP in 1997, in part as a reaction to litigation in other states over funding disparities among public-school districts. Wealthier districts, those with high property-tax values, had more resources than poorer districts with low property-tax values—the equity issue. To avoid litigation, the MAEP formula accounts for wealth disparities by providing the same "base student cost" level of funding per student for every district. The goal of MAEP is to ensure each district has enough money to provide every child with the opportunity for an "adequate" education. MAEP comes close to addressing both the adequacy and equity issues.
Legislative leaders and media continue to imply that the Legislature has not reviewed MAEP since its 1997 adoption. That allegation is not true. In 2005, the Legislature established a 17-member commission to review the formula. It consisted of legislators, education professionals and financial experts, including then-State Auditor Phil Bryant. Then-Sen. (now Insurance Commissioner) Mike Chaney and I were co-chairmen. To assist in the review, the committee retained the same education-consulting firm the Legislature hired to help design the original 1997 MAEP legislation.
Based on the work of the experts and input from stakeholders, including those who attended a public hearing, the commission issued its report prior to the 2006 legislative session. There were several recommendations for minor adjustments to the formula. Using the commission report and following the normal legislative committee process, the Legislature reauthorized the adjusted MAEP formula in its 2006 session. Gov. Barbour signed it.
The point of all of this history is that MAEP is not just some formula that a bunch of liberal legislators pulled out of the air. It was carefully crafted, fully vetted, thoroughly debated by the House of Representatives and the Senate, and passed with bi-partisan support—twice.
Since its original adoption in 1997, MAEP been funded only two times in accordance with the law. There are lots of reasons for the State's failure to fund, and no reason to point fingers. The issue is not what happened in the past. The issue now is how the Legislature will approach funding our public schools in the future.
Will the new funding plan gut MAEP and further cut funding for public education, or will it focus instead on making sure that every child in Mississippi has access to a quality education?
Obviously, a quality system of public education is of vital importance to our future. In the 19 years since MAEP was first adopted, more than 500,000 kids have graduated from Mississippi public schools. Another 460,000 Mississippi kids are currently enrolled in those same schools. They are all part of the future of this state. If they are not successful citizens, Mississippi will pay the price. A quality education is the key to that success. If we are going to modify the education funding formula in any substantive way, the message to decision makers should be simple: Don't screw it up.
Central District Public Service Commissioner Cecil Brown is the former chairman of the House Education Committee.