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

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Mississippi State Capitol
Mississippi State Capitol (by Brent Moore)

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides the basics for operating local school districts, was nearly gutted in 1997 just as it was beginning its long legislative journey.

Then-Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, passed an amendment to the legislation in his committee that essentially said the funding formula had to be fully funded only as money was available. The Gordon amendment was met with harsh criticism by the education community.

Gordon soon backtracked and said he wanted to offer a new amendment on the Senate floor that would take the legislation back to its original intent, mandating that the Legislature “shall” fully fund the formula.

But the Senate leadership wanted to take a different approach. Senate leaders sought out Sen. Jim Bean of Hattiesburg, a Republican and one of the more respected members of the chamber, to offer the amendment. Bean, who like many Republicans at the time supported the landmark bill, offered the amendment that was approved by his colleagues, Republicans and Democrats alike.

Today, another Republican — Senate Education Chair Dennis DeBar of Leakesville — is trying to fix the important legislation and move beyond the political fights that have engulfed MAEP for years.

Several wars have broken out over the funding formula over the years. Despite the word “shall” being reinserted by the Bean amendment, legislators and Republican governors have ignored the full funding mandate, and the Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled that shall did not really mean shall. On top of the continuing fight over full funding, former Speaker Philip Gunn and then-Lt. Gov Tate Reeves have tried unsuccessfully to replace the program.

Amid all the fighting, efforts to fix issues with the Adequate Education Program have been ignored. Some took the position that MAEP could not be fixed. Instead, it needed to be replaced. Others took the position that any effort to change MAEP would be done for the ulterior purpose of hurting public education. After all, many of those clamoring most for a replacement were supporters of vouchers and other programs most often opposed by public school supporters.

As a result of all the fighting, MAEP has remained in limbo.

DeBar, as unassuming a major committee chair as can be found in the halls of the Capitol, wants to provide a fix — not a rewrite — of the program while fully funding it. At least that was his position in the 2023 session and is presumably his position this year. He has filed legislation to accomplish his goal.

The major issue DeBar wants to address is the amount of local money wealthy school districts have to contribute to the formula. The concept behind MAEP is simple: Through an objective formula, based on the cost needed to operate adequately performing and fiscally conservative schools, a base student cost is developed. The state provides school districts with a certain percentage of that base student cost for each student. The state provides more of the base student cost for poorer districts and less for more affluent districts.

When the formula was developed in 1997, there was a desire to ensure no school district would receive less funding under the newly created Adequate Education Program than it was receiving under the old program. That made sense at the time, but through the years that well meaning commitment has turned into what some would call a financial windfall for a handful of wealthy districts and an albatross for lawmakers funding MAEP.

A major part of DeBar’s fix is requiring those wealthier districts to pay a larger percentage of the costs.

DeBar’s proposal passed the Senate last year but died in the House, where then-Speaker Philip Gunn did not want to do anything to make MAEP more palatable to a larger group of people. Instead, Gunn wanted to replace MAEP altogether.

But it is important to remember that Gunn’s proposed replacement would have eliminated an objective funding formula. Instead, Gunn’s proposal would have left it to legislators to pull a base student cost out of the air. That would leave legislators the option to lower the base student cost on a whim to pass a tax cut, to provide more money to another agency or for any other reason they deemed appropriate. Gunn’s proposal also would have no inflation or growth factor.

Some fear how low education funding might go without the objective formula offered by MAEP. After all, even with the formula and the mandate it shall be fully funded, Mississippi is consistently near the national bottom in per pupil expenditures.

It is not clear what position new House Speaker Jason White will take and whether this will be the year a compromise is reached to fix MAEP, or whether it will remain in limbo and continue a fight first started way back in 1997 in Jack Gordon’s Senate Appropriations Committee.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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