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House leaders want lawmakers, not an objective formula, to determine ‘full funding’ for public schools

House leaders filed a bill Tuesday that would ditch the objective formula that has for decades determined the funding level for Mississippi’s public schools and instead leave it to lawmakers to annually determine how much to give schools.

The bill, which would scrap the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), is sponsored by House Education Chair Rob Roberson, R-Starkville, and is supported by first-year House Speaker Jason White.

READ MORE: Speaker Jason White says House will work to scrap, rewrite public education funding formula

Roberson on Tuesday did not rule out the possibility that the House leadership’s final version could include an objective funding formula to determine what is known as the base student cost.

The current MAEP, which Roberson and other members of the House leadership are trying to rewrite, uses a formula to ascertain the base student cost to provide an adequate education for each child and provides that amount of money for each student. Local school districts are required to pay a portion of that base student cost — no more than 27%. MAEP provides more state funding for poor districts than for more affluent districts.

First-year House Speaker Jason White, R-West, announced earlier this week on the SuperTalk radio network his plans to “scrap” MAEP and pass out of the House a new plan in about two weeks, but he offered few other details. If the White-Roberson plan passes the House, it would go to the Senate, where leaders have introduced legislation to “fix” but not totally replace MAEP.

The House rewrite bill, House Bill 1453, was posted on the legislative website on Tuesday, but was later removed.

While Roberson did not rule out the possibility of an objective formula being added to the bill, he said, “I would contend the current formula is not objective.” Even though MAEP was passed in 1997 with bipartisan support, some Republicans have been longtime critics, arguing the state could not afford it and that the program was too complex.

Roberson said the rewrite would direct more money than the base student cost to students based on certain criteria, such as for special education needs or for English learners. But as the bill is currently written, the Legislature would determine what the base student cost is. Some public education advocates fear legislators would reduce the base student cost in future years so that they could fund other pet projects or provide tax cuts.

Roberson said he hopes to provide an additional $100 million to $150 million to public education as part of the rewrite. MAEP is underfunded $174 million for the current fiscal year and has been underfunded by $3.52 billion since 2008.

In the 2010s, then-House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves tried to rewrite MAEP and to remove the objective formula. That effort was killed in a bipartisan effort in the Senate in 2018.

The current effort by new Speaker White is the first attempt since 2018 to completely rewrite the formula.

Last year the Senate, led by Education Committee Chair Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, tried to make significant changes to MAEP and to fully fund it. The Senate’s proposed changes included requiring wealthy school districts to contribute more to the formula and limiting the possible year-over-year growth in the formula. Those proposed changes and full funding were rejected by House leaders.

DeBar has filed a bill again this session to try to enact those same changes.

Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, introduces legislation every year to increase how much in state funding MAEP would allocate to the districts for at-risk students. At-risk students would include those living in poverty. But considering that MAEP has been fully funded only twice since it was enacted in 2003, there has not been much appetite among state leaders to increase the money going to MAEP by increasing the amount of money at-risk students are supposed to receive. Under current law, local school districts are supposed to receive an extra 5% for each at-risk student.

Clark said he has not yet seen the proposed MAEP rewrite bill, but said an objective formula is important. He called the objective formula “the heart and soul of MAEP” and without it feared how poorer districts could be impacted in later years.

READ MORECould this be the year political games end and MAEP is funded and fixed?

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