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Lawmakers send MAEP education funding formula rewrite to governor

A new school funding formula has been approved by the Legislature that, like the long-standing Mississippi Adequate Education Program, will rely on an objective mechanism to determine how much state funding is needed to operate schools.

The push to replace MAEP has been one of most contentious issues facing legislators in the final days of the 2024 session. There have been efforts for years to replace the formula by those who say the state could not afford it.

On Saturday the 52-member Senate with three dissenting votes passed on to the governor a compromise proposal to replace MAEP. The House had unanimously passed it late Friday.

“The whole point of us doing this is to make certain our school districts are treated as fairly and as best we could,” said House Education Chair Rob Roberson, R-Starkville. He said the new formula will provide additional money for poor districts and for low-income and special-needs students.

Roberson’s original bill did not include an objective funding formula, which had been the hallmark of MAEP. Senate Education Chairman Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, who was reluctant to rewrite MAEP, finally acquiesced, but was insistent that any rewrite include an objective formula that took out of the hands of politicians – namely legislators – the amount of money needed for the operation of local school districts.

On Saturday, DeBar told senators that if the Senate had not insisted on an objective funding formula, the Legislature could have “willy nilly” decided the level of education funding.

“This formula will allow for predictability over time. Whereas the House bill did not,” DeBar said. “It (the House plan) was a one-year thing where the Legislature could come in and decide to increase or decrease funding for education. This will hold our feet to the fire in the Legislature and ensure our schools are funded.”

House Education Vice Chairman Kent McCarty, R-Hattiesburg, told House members that the objective funding formula made the original House proposal stronger.

“I think this is a good addition to the bill,” he said. Like MAEP, the formula will be recalculated every four years and in the intervening years there will be an inflation factor added to the funding.

Under the new formula, schools will receive per student the average teacher salary divided by 14, which represents the average student-teacher statewide ratio. In addition schools will get another 20% of that amount for administrative costs, 30% for ancillary costs and money for operations and maintenance based on the three-year, per-square-foot average of the school district’s operations and maintenance costs.

On top of that, the school districts will receive additional funds for students in certain categories, such as for special-education students, those living in poverty, or living in areas of high poverty and for students who do not speak English as their primary language. The additional money provided to categories of students was a key component of the original House bill.

Like MAEP, local school districts will be required to pay a portion of the cost. But wealthier districts will be required to pay more than districts with a smaller local property tax base. No district will be mandated to pay more than 27% of the cost.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, one of the architects of MAEP in 1997, was one of the three no votes.

While Bryan said there appeared to be good features to the new funding plan, more time was needed to study it.

“It is simply not possible to enact a funding formula for public education in this legislative session where we know what we are doing,” he said. “We don’t have enough time for people to look at the new proposal, consider alternatives.”

Bryan pointed out that if MAEP was unpredictable for school districts it was because of the Legislature’s refusal to fully fund it. He said it is possible – even likely – that the same will occur with the new formula.

MAEP had language saying the formula “shall” be fully funded, But the full funding mandate was ignored every year since the program was fully enacted in 2003 except for twice.

Under the first year of the new formula, which goes into effect with the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1, K-12 education is supposed to receive an additional $230 million.

The additional funding will bring the education budget to $2.94 billion – about $50 million less than MAEP would have provided if fully funded.

DeBar said that based on inflation it will take about $50 million more in funds to fully fund the new formula next year.

The new formula will be called simply the Mississippi Student Funding Formula.

Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, voted against the proposal because she feared that like MAEP the new formula would make a commitment over time the state could not afford. Plus, she said she was concerned about the money going to educate students who spoke English as a second language. Hill said she wanted more details on that feature of the bill.

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