Belinda Dammen is one of thousands of educators across the country who will be faced with a very tough question if President Donald Trump’s proposed education cuts are put into action: Who can we afford to lose?
As the Pascagoula-Gautier School District’s assistant superintendent of elementary education, she oversees 12 elementary schools and their teachers. Her district would be greatly affected by Trump’s proposal to cut an entire program from the U.S. Department of Education’s budget.
It would lose close to a half-million dollars per year.
“We’ll be forced to have to get rid of teachers. No question,” Dammen said bluntly. “And so will other districts across the state.”
Trump’s proposed 2018 budget calls for $9 billion, or 13.5 percent, in cuts to the Department of Education.
The cuts would eliminate the entire $2.3 billion for the Title II program, which helps train, recruit and retain teachers. If approved, the cuts would result in a $31 million shortfall for Mississippi.
And in South Mississippi, Title II cuts would mean the loss of close to $4 million for 16 school districts, according to the Mississippi Department of Education’s Office of Federal Programs.
It’s funding Dammen’s district and all 143 school districts in the state have relied upon for years.
Mississippi is the state most dependent on federal funding in general, including for education.
Title I through Title IV federal funding provides financial assistance to school districts with high numbers of children from low-income families.
The money is meant to add high-quality, effective teachers and principals in poorer schools. It also has meant fewer students per classroom, which has been shown to increase student proficiency and growth.
For a state like Mississippi — whose average poverty rate in 2015 was more than 8 percent higher than the national average — such funding plays a crucial role, Harrison County schools Superintendent Roy Gill said.
“Whenever you take money away from programs that help poor students, that’s never a good idea,” Gill said. “Unless those (Title II) funds are going to be included into something else, it’ll be a significant hit for us.”
Harrison County received more than $500,000 in Title II funding for the 2016-17 school year, the most in South Mississippi and fourth in the state.
The state’s budget struggles are also at issue. The legislature has fully funded education using the state’s funding formula only twice in 20 years. Legislators have not yet set a budget for next year — they’ll do so in an upcoming special session — but state House officials told the Associated Press in March the state’s schools would see about $40 million less than last year.
“We have a shrinking amount of money from the state,” Pascagoula-Gautier schools Superintendent Wayne Rodolfich said. “That means more children will be affected. The state has no mechanism right now to (do) what federal funding does. With the federal funding, we’re able to meet some of our needs through the training of teachers.”
Title II money has allowed his district, for instance, to retain seven additional teachers, which has reduced average class size to 16 to 17 students, compared with 22 or 23 students before the teachers were hired.
“It’s not just (teachers), though,” said Frank Catchings, federal program director for Pascagoula-Gautier and vice president of the Mississippi Association of Federal Education Program Directors. “It’s used for teacher and staff development. It allows us to train teachers who work with English-learning students and those with the highest need, those that don’t speak English.”
His district has an above-average number of English-learning students, about 9 percent. Jackson County has a growing Hispanic population, and the district has almost 18 percent Hispanic students, compared with the state average of less than 5 percent, according to Mississippi Department of Education data.
More cuts on the way?
Changes are often made to a president’s blueprint when Congress deliberates over agency and program funding. However, it’s less likely to assume the Trump administration’s budget will face major opposition, given Republican control of the House and Senate.
Though the cuts wouldn’t go into effect until the 2018-19 school year, the White House is committed to cutting half the $2.3 billion amount by the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, according to Education Week.
If that happens, it’ll put school districts in even more of a bind, said Frank McCardle, Pass Christian School District director of federal programs.
“We’re on hold,” he said. “This is our planning period, so it’s hard to know what we have to budget with. What do you do?
“We’re already stretching every penny that we pull down from the state to the district.”
State Education Superintendent Carey Wright expressed concern about the possible cuts in a statement her office released.
“At this point, we don’t know what congressional action will take place regarding President Trump’s proposed budget. However, in our state plan to move public education forward in Mississippi, the Mississippi Department of Education is depending on Title II funds to assist school districts with recruiting and retaining teachers and to provide training opportunities for teachers.”
The Trump administration also has proposed cutting the 21st Century Community Learning Center program budget, a $1.1 billion program which helps finance after-school and extended-day programs.
Congress faces a deadline of Sept. 30 to pass the appropriations bills that fund federal agencies and programs.
Title II funding amounts
President Donald Trump’s proposal to eliminate $2.3 billion in Title II education funding would result in close to a $4 million total shortfall for Mississippi schools. Listed below are the dollar amounts South Mississippi school districts have received the last two years from the Title II program.
South Mississippi school districts
Title II funding 2016
Title II funding 2017
Bay St. Louis
Pearl River County
Source: Mississippi Department of Education