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Schools doing more with less but falling behind

As this was being written on Friday, the Legislature continuedits budget stalemate, having missed its third deadline with thesession scheduled to conclude today (Sunday). Undoubtedly it willbe extended. Then again, there is talk of recessing without abudget – a truly interesting situation.

The center of the stalemate is funding of elementary andsecondary education. The House and Senate are currently $80 millionapart, with the House within $25 million of what educators want,the Senate $105 million less than the educators’ request and Gov.Haley Barbour’s plan somewhere in between.

The debate over public education spending has gone on for yearsand can effectively be split down political party lines, withRepublicans wanting to cut and Democrats wanting to spend -conservatives wanting accountability and liberals willing to lookthe other way.

With all the finger-pointing, facts and figures become lost inthe emotion of the day and misinformation runs rampant. To bring itall into perspective, I came across a Web site this week calledSchoolMatters.com. Standard and Poor’s – the well-known analyticalservices company to the financial industry – maintains the site.S&P has gathered analytical data on school systems in all 50states for the past few years.

Some interesting data comes out of the site. For instance,through 2002 the state of Mississippi spent $5,801 per student forpublic education, while, on the average, the rest of the statesspent $8,848 per student – 34.4 percent more than us.

Of that expense, $3,224 is spent on instruction in Mississippi,while the rest of the country spends $4,727. The other states, as agroup, spend $1,313 per student for administrative and maintenanceexpenses, while Mississippi spends $996 per student.

The other states spend, on average, $712 per student for capitalexpenses to build or renovate schools, while Mississippi spends$235 per pupil.

What is most telling is that when you break it all down,Mississippi matches the rest of the nation on taxation burden at10.1 percent.

Digging further through the site, it is interesting to find thatwhile the rest of the nation spends 21.7 percent of state budgets(an adjusted figure) on elementary and secondary education,Mississippi spends 19.8 percent (an adjusted figure).

Meanwhile, Mississippi spends 16.3 percent on higher education,while the other states spend only 10.8 percent. Our state alsospends more percentage wise on Medicaid (25.3 percent) than theaverage of the other states (21.4 percent).

Of those figures, since 2001, Mississippi has decreased itsspending percentage on both primary and secondary education but hasincreased the Medicaid percentage each year since 2001.

What does this all mean? One could surmise that on a percentagebasis the state’s colleges and universities are being funded at theexpense of primary education. One could point to the fact thatMississippi has eight state-supported universities whose duplicatedservices suck up limited funding. One could ask what is moreimportant – turning out Ph.D.s or teaching first-graders how toread and write? Both are vital services, but it has to be asked,which comes first the chicken or the egg?

One could also surmise that Mississippi finds it more importantfor the state to take care of the medical needs of Aunt Sallyinstead of Aunt Sally’s family taking that responsibility.

One could additionally surmise that Mississippi schools aredoing more with less than any other state in the nation butdestined to continue to fall behind as the good and dedicated butfrustrated educators decide to go elsewhere.

The bottom line is that as the poorest state in the union,Mississippi is broke and no amount of finger pointing and politicalposturing is going to solve the problem. What is ironic is thateach additional day the Legislature stays in session, the annualsalary of two schoolteachers could have been paid.

Write to Bill Jacobs at P.O. Box 551, Brookhaven MS 39602, orsend e-mail to bjacobs@dailyleader.com.