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Rep. Becky Currie: MAEP changes not likely this year

Lincoln County’s legislators are in their second week of a 90-day session in Jackson and one of the main items they’re tackling is whether to adopt a new school funding formula.

The current education formula, called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, was put into law 20 years ago but has been fully funded only twice. Legislators hired the New Jersey-based consulting group EdBuild three months ago to recommend changes. They study school funding methodologies.

Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, believes the formula needs to be updated, but doesn’t think it will be in 2017.

“It is a very old formula and we want to look at ways to get more money in the classroom,” said Currie, who represents District 92 of Lincoln, Copiah and Lawrence counties. “EdBuild has still not given us any recommendations so I am not sure it will get done this year.”

EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia says she doesn’t anticipate recommending a reduction in spending. But any changes would cause losses for some school districts and gains for others, unless lawmakers find money to increase total spending.

Currie said she and others in the House are not rushing into a solution.

“It is not something any of us take lightly and we want it done right if we are going to do it,” she said. “EdBuild is right about not looking for less money; we want to know our money is going to the right places like the teachers and classroom. We want to look at things like why a child doesn’t have a book. We know we have to have money for buildings and administration but when we put money into MAEP formula we have no idea where it goes. It may all be fine but we wanted a second set of eyes looking at where our tax money is going and is it going to where it benefits students the most.”

Rep. Vince Mangold, R-Brookhaven, wants to see the formula changed. Mangold, who represents District 53 of Lincoln, Lawrence, Jefferson Davis, Franklin and Pike counties, said it’s outdated and needs some work.

“We as legislators are working to make sure every child has the opportunity to get a good education. We are still waiting on EdBuild’s recommendations. As long as the teachers and students are getting what they need, everyone will benefit.”

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, said she has not seen any proposed changes to MAEP.

“However, education currently receives at least half of our general fund dollars — approximately $2.5 billion from the $5.6 billion budget,” said Doty, who represents District 39 Lincoln, Copiah, Lawrence and Walthall counties. “The current MAEP formula has been in place for 20 years and is extremely complicated. In fact, it is indecipherable to all but a handful of people. Reviewing the formula every few years seems like a responsible course of action to me.”

House Minority Leader David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, said Democrats are willing to discuss changes to the state’s education funding formula if they will result in improvements.

Rep. Kathy Sykes, D-Jackson, said she opposes changes to the school formula. “We have never given it the chance to work by fully funding it,” she said.

Reeves expects recommendations soon

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said Monday that he expects EdBuild to submit its recommendations for changing Mississippi’s education funding formula in about a week or so.

The Republican said lawmakers still plan to rewrite the formula during the current legislative session. Some people have warned there may not be enough time to properly vet changes, but Reeves painted those favoring delay as Democratic obstructionists.

“They’ve decided they’re against it no matter what the bill is going to say,” Reeves said at a luncheon sponsored by the Stennis Institute of Government and the Capitol press corps.

EdBuild was supposed to submit proposals before the session started. The deadline to introduce bills is Monday, meaning lawmakers may have to introduce a placeholder bill and change it later.

Such a move would reduce the amount of time for debate.

The changes could increase funding for some of Mississippi’s 141 school districts, but decrease it for others, unless lawmakers increase overall funding.

Republican leaders have said they support a formula that provides more funding per student based on individual needs, such as more money for special education if a student has a disability.

Reeves said he favors spending more on public schools, but said it’s “intellectually dishonest” to expect Mississippi, with low levels of wealth and income, to spend as much as other states.

Funding has fallen $1.9 billion short

From 2009 through the current budget year, funding has fallen $1.9 billion short.

When the formula was originally written and when it was re-examined under Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, proposals were developed through a much slower process with more public debate. Reeves, though, lauded the input given to EdBuild through a series of private meetings arranged by Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton.

“They met with school business finance officers,” he said. “They met with teachers. They met with superintendents from all across the state.”

EdBuild representatives also have received written comments and appeared for one 90-minute public hearing.

Reeves and other Republican leaders have said repeatedly that they want a formula that cuts spending on principals, assistant principals and central office administrators in favor of spending on teachers and the classroom. Monday, he offered no specific proposals on how to achieve that.

“It’s obviously always a balance one must strike in order to ensure that local control is maintained,” Reeves said.

EdBuild has said it favors allowing districts to spend state aid as they choose, mirroring the current setup.

Associated Press reporter Jeff Amy contributed to this report.