JACKSON — “Like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” That’s the way Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, described the joint meeting between the House and Senate Education Committees yesterday. Committee members from both chambers met to hear Rebecca Sibilia, chief executive officer of EdBuild, a company Mississippi GOP leaders contracted to vet the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which determines the state’s share of public-school funding each year. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn have publicly criticized the formula, saying heavy administrative costs are causing districts’ financial woes.
“Antiquated, confusing, inefficient, unreliable, unpredictable. What do these words describe?” House Speaker Philip Gunn said at the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual Hob Nob on Oct. 27. “They describe the Mississippi Adequate Education Program funding formula.”
Sibilia’s company champions a method called student-based funding, or weighted student funding. Student-based funding assigns extra money to the base cost of educating a child based on factors such as whether they live in poverty or are learning English, rather than on average daily attendance or where students live. EdBuild said at the meeting yesterday that te company considers Mississippi’s current formula a hybrid of student-based funding because it establishes a base student cost, and has a 5-percent multiplier for students who live in poverty.
But legislators from both chambers, Democratic and Republican, seemed primarily concerned with how local contributions would fit into the new funding scheme.
Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, pointed out that local governments determine millage rate for public-school districts. “How do we force the county and local governments to raise millage and their contribution?” he asked.
“Will high-wealth school districts take the burden to pay for low-income districts?” asked Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport.
Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said his district has already raised its millage as high as it would go. “How do we get other municipalities to raise millage, too?” he asked.
Rep. Greg Holloway, D-Hazlehurst, asked the most glaring question: “How do you propose we shift resources from affluent districts to lower-income districts?”
Sibilia pointed out a variety of methods to handle local funding exist; some states use no local funding at all, for instance.
“Our recommendation will be that there is as much money as possible put into the new student-based formula,” she said. Sibilia said it is the state’s responsibility to ensure equity between low- and high-income districts.
“It is misdirection,” Bryan, one of MAEP’s authors, told the Jackson Free Press after the meeting. “In order to avoid complying with the law and funding the formula and giving the schools the amount of money they need to educate students, they’re off on this frolicking detour to get everybody involved in these esoteric concepts of base student cost and English-language learning, and ignoring the fact that the problem is there’s not enough money there.” The Legislature has only fully funded MAEP twice since its creation in 1997.
Bryan said that in creating MAEP, he and the other authors spent years focusing on the state’s unique issues with equity and adequacy, and intentionally putting the lion’s share of the burden of funding on the state so that local districts would not have to raise taxes. “It’s also terrifying that instead of sitting down and developing a formula literally over years to be careful and to make sure we knew what we’re doing, you’ve got an organization from New Jersey go up there for two months and come back to Mississippi and tell us what the formula ought to be,” Bryan added.
Sibilia says that EdBuild would have its recommendations to the state by the end of the calendar year. EdBuild is not sure if it would have the same funding recommendations for the state’s charter schools as the state’s regular public schools.
Sierra Mannie is an education reporting fellow with the Jackson Free Press and The Hechinger Report. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.