The Mississippi Legislature has been in session 44 days. One of the issues you have heard much about this year is public education funding. By now, many articles have been written on House Bill 957, commonly referred to as the “Uniform Per Student Funding Formula bill” or the “Mississippi Adequate Education Program rewrite.” Some of what you have read and heard is in support of a new funding formula, while some is strongly opposed to making any change to the current formula. All the conflicting information and differing viewpoints can certainly be confusing. As we near the halfway point of this 90-day session, I’d like to share with you the basic idea behind the new funding formula and the reasons this legislation is the right thing to do not only for education, but for the betterment of all Mississippians.
First and foremost, the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula is good for Mississippi students. The formula is entirely student-based, which means that the single most important customer of our public school system — the student — is the fundamental building block of the new formula. This shift to focusing on students and their specific needs is a major departure from the current funding mechanism, the MAEP, which employs a complex process to calculate the funding necessary for school districts to deliver programs that are supposed to yield a successful level of education.
Under MAEP, the emphasis is on the price of programs, with little consideration given to school districts’ unique characteristics such as rural versus urban, affluent versus poor, small versus large, and so on. The Uniform Per Student Funding Formula starts with an amount for each student enrolled in a school district and then adds additional amounts for students who cost more to educate, such as students in high school, rural districts, poor districts, gifted programs and special education programs and those whose primary language is not English. The new formula is simple math which considers the needs of each individual child in calculating a school district’s funding.
The straightforward calculation of how much funding a school district can realistically expect for the following school year is just one of the reasons the new formula is good for school districts. On top of knowing how much it will receive, a school district will have greater flexibility in how funds are spent.
No two school districts are exactly alike: who better knows what the children in a particular school district need than the district itself? Over the next two years, study committees created in the bill will examine ways to give school districts even greater flexibility in spending. To be sure that no school district suffers a loss of funds while these studies are being conducted and any fine tuning of the formula occurs, House Bill 957 includes a hold harmless provision that guarantees no school district will receive less funds for the next two years than it did in the 2017-2018 school year.
So, if a uniform per student funding program is good for students and schools, why are some folks against it? Perhaps the strongest argument against the new funding program is really not against the funding formula at all; rather, the most frequently made argument is against moving away from MAEP to any other funding mechanism. At the time MAEP was written, no one anticipated the economic downturn waiting around the corner.
Over the last 20 years, full MAEP funding has been achieved only twice. Expenses in critical areas have ballooned. The unfortunate reality is that to fully fund MAEP, the state would have to operate in a vacuum, with no consideration given to resources or pressing needs, and fail to provide adequate funding for mental health, indigent health care, public safety and other essential services. Just as families must consider all their needs and resources when making spending decisions, so, too, must the state. To fully fund MAEP is impossible if other essential services are to be provided to Mississippians.
It has been said, “Show me a good school, and I’ll show you a good community. Show me a good community, and I’ll show you a good school.” The Uniform Per Student Funding Formula will be better for Mississippi’s children, and it will be better for the school districts educating our children. With stronger schools, funded according to the needs of their students and granted flexibility in how to best meet those needs, the educational attainment of communities across the state will rise. With a better educated workforce, communities will be more attractive to industry. New or expanding industries will bring jobs and bolster economic prosperity in our communities.
Economic prosperity will increase the quality of life in communities across the state, which, in turn, will yield even greater schools. So while the immediate beneficiaries of the new funding program are the children in our schools, for these reasons, the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula is a good thing for all Mississippians.
Richard Bennett is chairman of the Mississippi House Education Committee.