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House leaders tweak school funding plan after feedback from education groups

House leaders said they have tried to address concerns of educators in their latest attempt to rewrite the longstanding formula that determines the amount of state funds provided to local school districts for their basic operation.

The latest version of the legislation, which passed the House Education Committee on Tuesday, includes an inflation factor and a committee that includes eight school superintendents that would make binding recommendations to the Legislature on the amount of money local school districts should receive. The committee also would include five representatives of the Mississippi Department of Education.

“This bill is as close to getting to equitable funding as we can get in this state,” said Education Chair Rob Roberson, R-Starkville, who is the primary author of the proposal dubbed the Investing in the Needs of Students to Prioritize, Impact and Reform Education (INSPIRE).

The legislation would replace the longstanding Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which was passed in 1997 but has been fully funded only twice since its full enactment in 2003. Proponents of the legislation say the new House proposal is more equitable than the Adequate Education Program, providing more funds for special education, for poor students and for those learning English as a second language.

But some public education advocates and others have long been wary of legislative efforts to rewrite the funding formula over concerns lawmakers want to gradually spend less money on schools.

READ MORE: The fate of the House school funding plan could come down to one question: Who wrote it?

House Education Vice Chair Kent McCarty, who also worked extensively on the INSPIRE proposal, said the program would pump almost as much money into education as MAEP if the current formula was fully funded.

MAEP, at full funding for the upcoming fiscal year, would cost $2.99 billion. INSPIRE’s total cost would be $2.96 billion.

The proposal passed the House Education Committee in a voice vote on Tuesday with no one voting against, though it was apparent that some members did not vote. The bill will be taken up by the full House in the coming days.

The Senate Education Committee, conversely, has passed legislation that “tweaks” the current MAEP, making it cost a little less to fully fund.

One member of the House Education Committee, Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, said of INSPIRE: “I don’t think I can support it. I am a supporter of the current program. We have a good formula with MAEP if we fund it.”

READ MORE: Education groups urge lawmakers to keep objective formula in place for school funding

Multiple education groups previously expressed concern that the House language did not include an objective criteria to determine the base student cost. MAEP’s base student cost is determined by factoring the cost to educate a child in an efficiently operated adequate school district. That formula is calculated every four years and during the intervening years a modest growth or inflation factor is added to the base student cost, and the school districts receive the base student costs times their average daily attendance. Under MAEP, poor districts receive more for the base student cost than more affluent districts do.

House leaders, in an effort to appease education advocates, tweaked the INSPIRE bill to include eight superintendents — half from large districts and half from small districts across the state — on a committee that would provide legislators a base student cost every four years. In intervening years, a modest inflation factor would be added to the base student cost.

McCarty said legislators should be held accountable for not fully funding education any year they do not provide the level of funding called for by the independent committee made up of local superintendents and Department of Education officials.

The base student cost in the House bill is set at $6,650 – about $800 less than the base student cost for MAEP for the upcoming year if it was fully funded. But the House bill adds significantly more money for those students deemed to cost more to educate.

McCarty pointed out that the Senate has proposed changes to the MAEP program that would make it generate about $40 million less for schools than would the House plan.

During the committee meeting, Watson asked if any out-of-state groups had worked with the House leadership in developing the plan. McCarty said he worked with Roberson, Rep. Jansen Owen, R-Poplarville, and other House members to develop the House bill without any input from out-of-state groups.

Mississippi Today reported earlier on Tuesday that outside groups that have advocated for vouchers and charter schools and other types of school choice in the past also worked on developing a rewrite of MAEP, and that rewrite included many of the same elements as the new House bill. Additionally, House leaders including McCarty have used a password protected website developed by those groups with the help of an out-of-state consulting group to run calculations of how much money varying versions of their newly proposed formula would produce per school district.

McCarty said that the sole purpose of the new formula is to equitably allocate funds and that the MAEP no longer does that, pointing out that the House bill provides extra help to poor school districts. Under the bill, some wealthier school districts would receive less funds than they got this past year when MAEP was underfunded about $175 million.

“We appreciate the improvements they have made to the bill,” said Nancy Loome of the Parents Campaign, who was among a group of educators who said any rewrite should include an objective formula. “But we still have big problems. For instance, it does not include an objective formula to determine the base student cost.”

READ MORESpeaker Jason White says House will work to scrap, rewrite public education funding formula

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