JACKSON -- Republican leaders, perhaps emboldened by their election victories last week, are saying changes could be coming during the upcoming legislative session to the mechanism used to get state funds to local school districts.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said he would like to see changes made to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to avoid conflicts it causes every legislative session.
"It's a constant source of conflict and dispute," Gunn said last week after his Republican Party gained seats in the state House ensuring him of four more years as speaker. "We need to find a way where the school systems can get what they need and in some way that doesn't result in an argument every year."
No doubt, for much of the past decade, a continuing theme in the Mississippi Legislature has been a battle between Republicans and Democrats over the funding level for MAEP.
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The Mississippi Adequate Education Program is the mechanism that provides most of the state funds to local school districts for their basic operations, ranging from paying teachers to keeping the lights on to buying school supplies.
For much of the past 12 years, Democrats have argued for more funds for MAEP or for full funding.
In 2006, it appeared a compromise had been crafted when then-Republican Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law a proposal that would phase-in full funding over a three-year period. The proposal had the near-unanimous backing of legislative Republicans, including Gunn, who at the time was minority leader.
But then, the so-called great recession hit in 2008 and local school districts have not sniffed full funding since. The Adequate Education Program has been underfunded $1.7 billion since 2008 and $200 million for the current year.
Education supporters, seeing legislators passing more and more tax cuts while leaving education underfunded, placed on the November ballot a citizen-sponsored initiative that, if passed, would have placed a greater commitment to public education in the state Constitution.
But after the proposal was rejected by roughly 25,000 votes -- 52 percent to 48 percent -- and after Republicans increased their legislative majority, changes might be in store for MAEP during the 2015 session.
Before the election, Rep. Lester "Bubba" Carpenter, R-Burnsville, said in private meetings the House Republican majority refers to the formula "as the big beast in the room. In meetings, they say it can be addressed next year so that it can be funded."
The Republican leadership has stressed that it wants to put more money into education, but wants to ensure the funds get to the classroom.
"We want to invest more and more in the classroom," Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said. "We need to push reforms that will work for kids."
Reeves said MAEP is not ensuring state funds reach the classroom.
A recent study by a legislative oversight committee shows that from fiscal years 2005 to 2015, state funds going to the classroom dropped from 57 percent to 53 percent, while other categories -- administrative, plant operations, food services, transportation and others -- remained constant or increased slightly.
Administrative increased from 11 to 12 percent of total state funding.
Local officials have said those numbers are misleading for a number of reasons. For instance, during the time period, state funding to local school districts was cut dramatically and some areas, such as plant operations, can only be cut so much. In other words, utility bills must be paid. Money going to the classroom or instructional costs represented by far the greatest percentage of the pie, so it was easier to cut.
Plus, James Barber, director of the Legislature's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee, acknowledged the large number of retirements of experienced school teachers. Those instructors are being replaced with inexperienced teachers who make less money, thus, reducing funds going to the classroom.
"There have been a lot of retirements of teachers," Barber acknowledged.
When asked if the Legislature might eliminate the Adequate Education Program, Reeves pointed out that some mechanism is needed to transfer state funds to local school districts.
And in reality, that is all MAEP does. MAEP provides funds based on what it costs to operate what are deemed efficiently-run adequate or "C" level districts. The funds are disbursed per student with more funds going to districts with smaller local property tax bases. Plus, districts get additional money for at-risk students.
Reeves said he would like to see the formula be based on what it costs to operate top-performing instead of adequate districts.
During Barbour's tenure as governor, he also was looking for ways to reduce funds going to the MAEP. But a study committee that he helped to form actually made recommendations that would have resulted in more money going to MAEP.
MAEP supporters say, if the formula is fully funded, Mississippi still has one of the lowest per pupil spending rates in the nation.