- Associated Press - Thursday, April 14, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - With only days to go, it remains unclear whether Mississippi lawmakers will attempt major changes to the state’s public school funding formula.

House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, said Thursday that three House members appointed to negotiate are drafting a proposal to make to senators.

Moore wouldn’t say exactly what House members would propose but said at least some of the changes would aim to hold down administrative spending. The share of money spent by districts statewide on administration has risen in recent years, for reasons that aren’t clear, but many Republican legislators believe that money is being wasted and want a higher share of money spent to pay classroom teachers.

The comments came on the same day that Democrats held a hearing meant to highlight problems with consistent shortfalls in funding the formula, known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Lawmakers have paid the full amount demanded by the formula only twice since it became law in 1997. This year, if school funding stays level, lawmakers would fall roughly $170 million short of full funding, or close to $350 per child.

An increasingly grim budget outlook means it’s unlikely that funding will go up this year. Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said he was aiming to hold funding for K-12 level but trying to re-allocate some funding outside the formula to different purposes, including expanded state preschool money.

“We’re literally scraping up scraps,” Tollison said.

In January, Gov. Phil Bryant ordered 1.5 percent cuts to many agencies, although not to MAEP. Revenue collections have deteriorated more since then, meaning another cut could be possible before the end of the current budget year. The worsening picture could also lead lawmakers to reduce projected spending for the budget beginning July 1 that they’re supposed to finalize by Saturday.

It’s unclear if changes to the formula will play into those discussions. Some Republicans have proposed basing the funding on the amounts spent by A- or B-rated districts, instead of the current formula based on spending by C-rated districts. Such changes would cut the aid provided to all districts, even higher-performing ones. For example, projections done before the legislative session by the Mississippi Department of Education showed that basing the formula on the average of A and B district spending would cut the overall formula by $80 million.

When asked if funding would go down because of the House’s proposal, Moore said it wouldn’t. When asked if the end result would be to shift money from lower-performing districts to higher performing districts, Moore said “absolutely not.”

“We’re not going to decrease the funding,” Moore said.

With weak state revenues this year, lawmakers could cut the amount demanded by the formula and still be unable to meet it

A number of education advocates have complained about the closed-door process for considering changes.

“The process should be transparent. Rather than amending the formula to meet their political needs, I urge our legislators to fund the formula to meet our students’ needs,” said Kelly Riley, executive director of the Mississippi Professional Educators. The leader of the 13,000-member teachers group told the Democratic meeting that any changes should be done in the open so many people could examine them.


Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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