The Mississippi Legislature begins its 2018 session in a few days, and one of its most interesting stories is sure to be whether it comes up with a new formula for education funding.
You will recall that during the 2017 session, Republicans in charge of the Legislature hired an out-of-state consultant to review the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. The consultant, EdBuild, made recommendations without applying dollars to them, although an analysis by The Associated Press showed the state would have to spend $145 million more than it has been.
Education advocates believe the Legislature’s Republican majority will try to get rid of MAEP this year, seeing it as a spending goal that the state can’t afford. They suspect some in the GOP would rather have no formula at all, a strategy that would prevent school districts from announcing how much they got shorted by the state.
It is certainly true that the state has only fully funded MAEP for two out of its 20 years of existence. But a funding formula at least gives lawmakers something to aim for, and whether they choose to keep MAEP or use something from EdBuild, they ought to have a financial target in mind — even if they’re not going to spend the full amount.
However, several Republicans said last week that they expect the Legislature to adopt a formula along the lines of what EdBuild suggested. It would provide a base amount of money for each public school student, and then extra money for children who need more services.
It’s hard to see how Republicans will adopt the EdBuild plan without any changes, because the Legislature that set up the new plan may then feel obliged to pay for it in full. If the AP analysis is correct, where would lawmakers find that additional $145 million?
In the current environment, finding that money would be difficult at best — if not impossible. State economists have forecast another year of flat tax revenue, which leaves budget writers with less flexibility.
It is true that sooner or later the Mississippi economy will improve and start generating more tax revenue. But unfortunately there is no sign of that right now. It would be horrible policy to base a budget on dreams of better things to come.
As a means of comparison with MAEP, that formula calls for $2.46 billion in education funding by 2019. Lawmakers have set a target of $2.20 billion — which is $263 million less than the formula. The EdBuild plan apparently would make up more than half of that difference, which ought to be a pretty easy sell to most school districts, since most of them would get more money than they are now.
The sense here is that lawmakers can choose whichever formula they like.
But reality dictates that whatever happens, they won’t have all the money they need — or that education advocates say is necessary.
Politics, meanwhile, would seem to indicate that education spending will keep increasing, probably by smaller amounts than desired, even if it doesn’t meet the goal of a formula.
Jack Ryan is the publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb.