Mississippi’s slight 2014 bump in per-pupil spending was not enough to lift the state from what’s become a familiar spot — near last.
Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau’s education report released this summer show Mississippi spent $8,263 per student, below the national average of $11,009 in the 2014 fiscal year.
In a statement to The Clarion-Ledger, House Speaker Philip Gunn suggested there might be adequate funding within the state Department of Education — it’s just not going to the classroom.
Excluding the District of Columbia, which was included in the report, Mississippi ranked 46 among states in per-pupil spending. Only Idaho, Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah spent less.
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“The goal of the ongoing budget working groups is to look closely at how agencies are spending the dollars given them,” said Gunn. “We want to move money from administrative and non-classroom expenditures to the actual classroom. If we can eliminate the duplication of services and streamline efforts, more money for the students may already be available within the agency.”
Mississippi’s four neighboring states all spent more per pupil. At $10,749, students in Louisiana receive 30 percent more in funding.
At $20,610, New York spent the highest amount per pupil in the nation. In comparison, Mississippi spent about a fourth as much. New York’s cost-of-living — the highest in the nation, according to the Bureau of Economics — is perhaps the biggest factor for the wide variation.
Along with Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama are among the country’s lowest price parities, but both outspent Mississippi per pupil by roughly 16 percent and 9 percent respectively.
State and local policy, particularly requirements for funding mechanisms, can also play a prominent role in the difference in spending.
In Mississippi, the amount of funding given to public schools is at the discretion of lawmakers. Last fall, Initiative 42, a citizen-driven referendum that would have forced the Legislature to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, failed at the ballot box.
Had the initiative passed, Mississippi would have joined 23 states with constitutions that include standards for quality and the 12 states that have minimum education funding standards.
Funding was flat for MAEP in the past legislative session, but according to numbers from the Parents Campaign, the formula was still underfunded by roughly $172 million.
“If you look at any study concerning education spending in Mississippi, it’s going to be at the bottom,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who authored MAEP. “Our failure to fund this (MAEP) formula is unacceptable.”
To add to the funding shortages, MAEP also took a $9.6 million hit following a cut mandated by Gov. Phil Bryant amid falling revenue in April.
Tax breaks hurt
Bryan expressed frustration with what he referred to as an “intentional diversion of revenue,” pointing to hundreds of millions of tax breaks approved by lawmakers over the years, the most recent of which occurred this past session with an incentives package for Continental Tire.
Lawmakers agreed to give the tire plant 25-year exemptions for state income tax and corporate franchise tax, along with sales tax exemptions and $3 million a year in rebates on employee income tax collections from its expected $100 million-a-year payroll.
Additionally, the company would pay only one-third of normal property taxes to Hinds County and Clinton schools for 10 years. The 2013-14 superintendent report from the Mississippi Department of Education, the most recent available, shows 40 percent of the revenue for Clinton schools and 45 percent of revenue for Hinds County schools came from local funding.
“No matter how you look at it, our spending on public schools is the among the lowest in the nation,” Bryan said. “We have been spending billions of dollars in tax breaks, while claiming we’re broke and can’t operate government.”
Some researchers such as Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics lab at Georgetown University, have argued school spending is more of a matter of available funds than the actual costs of educating students, pointing to factors such as test scores not correlating with expenditure amounts.
Roza told Governing.com, “the largest spending spikes are found in districts serving regions with high property values.”
Mississippi, for example, ranks in the lower five when it comes to spending per pupil as a numeric value. But additional census information shows Mississippi ranks 28 when it comes to the amount spent on instruction per $1,000 personal income. This is likely due to the state’s poverty level of 22 percent, the highest in the nation.
House Education Chair Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, cited the state’s drop in revenue when questioned about the ranking.
In the past, Moore has been a vocal critic of districts “spending more at the local level for administration and less on the instructional side.”
According to the census report, Mississippi ranked 20 in general administrative costs while its spending on pupil services, employee benefits, instructional salaries and school administrative costs ranked in the lower fifth.
That’s part of the reason, he said, there’s been an increased push for line-item monies rather than allowing districts to allocate. Moore has also entertained the idea of a discussion of legislation that would cap the percentage a district can spend on administration.
Asked if a limit alone would cover funding shortfalls that have left some districts strapped for resources, he said, “more funding is needed, but when you don’t have the money you have to reallocate the resources you have.”
Mississippi has moved in per pupil spending. It’s current ranking is an improvement over years past. The state’s lowest ranking at 49 occurred in 2002. Yet, its current ranking is still below 45, the highest it’s even been back in 2008.
Still, Moore is optimistic.
“If our growth and state revenue moves back to where it needs to be that will increase the funding that flows to the classroom.”