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Education funding must be based on facts and reality

Amid the state’s bleak budget outlook for the next fiscal year,Mississippi lawmakers have begun devising ways to slice the budgetpie in an attempt to feed the ever-growing appetites of stateagencies.

Although the Medicaid budget shortfall has taken the spotlightin recent weeks, education funding is sure to be a hot-button issuewhen it makes its way to center stage, these things are certain:Toes will be stepped on in the process, some people are going toget hurt and no one will be entirely happy with the outcome.

That is not the rosy, optimistic outlook we’d prefer, but thoseare the facts, and facts – not emotions – are what our stateofficials must use in solving this budget puzzle.

The first fact – the one many educators cannot fathom but theone that must guide the process – is that there simply is notenough money to fund every desire of every school district for theupcoming budget year. No matter how you slice the pie, no matterwhat other programs can be cut and no matter how much taxes areraised (within reason, of course), it just isn’t going tohappen.

In fiscal 2006, which begins July 1, schools are going to haveto make do with less than the would like. It’s unfortunate, andit’s not right; but it’s reality.

That’s not to say that the Legislature can turn its back on thestates schools and students. No, the opposite is true. We owe ourchildren – the future of our state and nation – a qualityeducation, and our lawmakers must start by fully funding theMississippi Adequate Education Program.

According to state law, MAEP establishes adequate funding levelsnecessary for school districts to meet at least Level III of thestate school accreditation system.

Although full MAEP funding is required by law, the Legislaturehas never done so – an omission that could very likely lead to thekind of costly lawsuits brought in 45 other states.

Mississippi owes its students more than a bare-bones education.Instead, our students need exposure to at least the basics thatwill equip them to succeed and be competitive in higher educationor the workplace. Given the state budget crunch, it won’t be easyto find the money to fund MAEP, but it’s the least the state can -and must – do.

Another issue sure to be contentious at the state Capitol in thedays to come is raises for Mississippi’s teachers.

Under a multi-year plan, educators are due an 8 percent raise inthe upcoming year – a $97 million package. Some state senators hadproposed delaying the raises by implementing them incrementallyover several years.

A Senate panel rejected the idea of incremental raises earlierthis month, but perhaps it warrants a second look. While ourstate’s teachers surely want – and deserve – the promised raises,the gravity of the situation may very well sidetrack them thisyear.

The state must look at education – as well as the rest of itsoperations – as a business, and sometimes business plans do notcome to fruition in the time frame anticipated. Again, to delayteacher raises would be unfortunate, but realistically speaking, itshould be an option on the table.

We do not profess to have all the solutions to the state’sbudget shortfall – especially in the all-important area ofeducation, nor do we envy the legislators who must craft a planthat balances fiscal soundness with our children’s future. But thatis the job they were elected to do, and we trust they willundertake it responsibly and with integrity.