Charlie Mitchell

Formula for funding is not all public schools, students need

Interviewed on Mississippi Public Broadcasting, Joyce Helmick made a great point. The topic was the state leadership’s apparent quest to abandon Mississippi’s existing K-12 funding formula, which they have called antiquated and ineffective. Her comment was, “How do we know? It hasn’t been tried.”

Helmick is a veteran classroom teacher who serves as president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, a group often called the “teacher union” and generally loathed in the halls of the Capitol.

But she’s right, of course. To avoid federal intervention due to the disparity of state funds provided to “rich” vs. “poor” districts, the Legislature adopted the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and its equalization formula in 1997. The ploy worked. The feds backed off. Subsequently, in all years except two, the Legislature has declined to provide cash in the amount the formula indicated. Ignoring the formula continued even after the Legislature added stronger wording in 2005.

So now it’s antiquated and ineffective?

Horsefeathers.

For a long time, battle lines have been shaping and shifting over public education in Mississippi. Both armies have plenty of ammo.

In late summer, it was revealed that a consultant, EdBuild, had been hired pretty much by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn — who are not seen as friends of public education — to study Mississippi and come up with ideas.

EdBuild is new and tiny but is fast-building a reputation for aggressive innovation under the leadership of Rebecca Sibilia. Her background includes working as vice president for fiscal strategy with Michele Rhee’s company, StudentsFirst. Rhee became prominent for her take-no-prisoners approach in trying to improve the nation’s most expensive and, by reputation, worst public school district — the one in Washington.

EdBuild will be paid $250,000 to study how Mississippi K-12 money is allocated and spent and follow up with recommendations to the Legislature on how to get more bang for education bucks.

Sibilia’s belief that charter schools have value is well-documented, leading some to conclude the fix is in, that EdBuild will simply say Mississippi must have more charter schools. That will fulfill the decades-long dream ascribed to white Republicans of funneling more public dollars to private schools while poor-performing mostly black public schools are left to rot. Sibilia says that’s not her bent or her record.

The basic question, though, is this basic notion that an objective monetary figure can be calculated to determine definitively whether a child is receiving a good, bad or adequate exposure to education.

Data to support “the more the better” is thin, at best.

The old story is Washington. Rhee was brought in specifically to tackle that district, which was flush with cash but underperforming (to use the polite word) miserably. Not a lot changed and she left in 2010.

The new story is the 2016 Education Report Card issued by the state Department of Education. Ponder this:

▪  The five Mississippi districts that spent the least per pupil scored two A’s and three B’s.

▪  The five Mississippi districts that spent the most per pupil scored four C’s and a D.

Many factors influence per-pupil spending, including the size of the district, the local tax base and such. The range in the state, by the way, is from $7,040 per student in Lincoln County to $18,107 in Clay County.

So what’s Lincoln County doing right that Clay County is doing wrong?

It’s hard to say. Clay County is in north central Mississippi, has a population of 20,500 and a per capita income of $18,300 per year. Lincoln is in south central Mississippi and has 35,000 people and a per capita income of $20,000 — not much higher. Nonwhite populations are 55 percent in Clay and 30 percent in Lincoln. Across the spectrum of demographics, the counties are not remarkably different.

Yet for every dollar spent in the Lincoln district, $2.57 is being spent in the Clay district — with worse outcomes.

It is never wrong to invest in education, but there is so much wrong with concluding more money is the single driver of quality.

Over time in Mississippi and elsewhere, politicians have become increasingly involved with managing local schools from afar. School board members are Jackson-faced, meaning their priority is to hit benchmarks, instead of community-faced, meaning focused on kids and classrooms.

At this point all people sincerely interested in better schools can hope for is a truce.

No formula, in and of itself, results in better schools. But if there were one, it would include the sum of good teachers and facilities, families that value education and communities that support education — and subtract politics.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.

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