Mississippi legislative leaders recently announced they have hired EdBuild, a New Jersey-based education consulting firm, to review the state’s public education funding formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.
A review of the formula is appropriate and timely. In fact, every public program should be reviewed periodically for efficiency, effectiveness and need.
However, the fear among many public education supporters that the legislative leadership will use this opportunity to reduce education funding and increase the number of charter schools and school voucher programs is not without merit.
MAEP was adopted by the Legislature in 1997 in part as a reaction to litigation in a number of states over funding disparities among public school districts.
Basically, the argument was that wealthier districts, those with high property tax values, were being provided more resources than poorer districts, those with low property tax values — the equity issue. To avoid such litigation, the MAEP formula accounts for wealth disparities by providing the same “base student cost” level of funding per student for every district.
The goal of MAEP is to ensure each district enough money to provide every child with the opportunity for an “adequate” education. MAEP comes close to addressing both the adequacy and equity issues.
Legislative leaders and the media continue to imply that MAEP has not been reviewed by the Legislature since its 1997 adoption. That allegation is not true.
In 2005, the Legislature established a commission to review the formula. The 17-member commission consisted of legislators, education professionals and financial experts, including then-State Auditor Phil Bryant. Mike Chaney and I were co-chairmen. Chaney was a senator at the time and is now insurance commissioner.
To assist in the review, the committee retained the same education consulting firm hired by the Legislature to help design the original 1997 MAEP legislation.
Based on the work of the experts and input from stakeholders, including those who attended a public hearing, the commission issued its report before the 2006 legislative session. There were several recommendations for minor adjustments to the formula. Using the commission report and following the normal legislative committee process, the Legislature reauthorized the adjusted MAEP formula in its 2006 session and Gov. Haley Barbour signed it into law.
The point of all of this history is that MAEP is not just some formula that was pulled out of the air by a bunch of liberal legislators. It was carefully crafted, fully vetted and thoroughly debated by the House and the Senate and passed with bi-partisan support — twice.
As has been repeatedly reported since its original adoption in 1997, only two times has MAEP been funded in accordance with the law. There are lots of reasons for the failure to fund, and there is no reason to point fingers. The issue is not what has happened in the past. The issue now is how will the Legislature approach funding of our public schools in the future. Will the new funding plan gut MAEP and further cut funding for public education, or will it focus instead on making sure that every child in Mississippi has access to a quality education?
Obviously, a quality system of public education is of vital importance to our future. In the 19 years since MAEP was first adopted, more than 500,000 kids have graduated from Mississippi public schools. Another 460,000 Mississippi kids are currently enrolled in those same schools. They are all part of the future of this state. If they are not successful citizens, Mississippi will pay the price. A quality education is the key to that success.
For that reason, if we are going to modify the education funding formula in any substantive way, the message to the decision makers should be simple — don’t screw it up.
Cecil Brown is the former chairman of Mississippi’s House Education Committee.