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Imagine public school underfunding with no objective formula

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Imagine public school underfunding with no objective formula

Feb 25, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Bobby Harrison
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Imagine public school underfunding with no objective formula
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Photo courtesy of Mississippi Today

Despite an objective school funding formula that state law says shall be fully funded, public schools were underfunded a cumulative total of a little more than $1 billion from 2012-2016 during the first term for Phil Bryant as governor and Tate Reeves as lieutenant governor.

At the time, state leaders said — as they often say — that they did not have the revenue to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

But during that same time period, as many state budgets were being cut and education underfunded, the Legislature, led in large part by Reeves and Bryant, passed about 50 tax cuts, mostly for businesses, at a cost of about $700 million.

Imagine what would have happened if there was not an objective formula to determine the amount of money needed to adequately educate a child. Imagine if during that time period the Legislature, without an objective formula, determined full funding. It is at least reasonable to assume that without that objective formula, legislators would have provided even less money to education in an effort to cut taxes and to avoid budget cuts to other agencies and to pet projects.

Perhaps imagining what might happen without an objective school funding formula is the reason for a letter last week signed by several public education groups — the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, the Association of School Administrators, the Mississippi Association of Educators, the Mississippi Professional Educators and the Parents Campaign — to legislative leaders highlighting the importance of an objective school funding formula.

The letter said “essential components” of any rewrite of the state funding formula must include “a base student cost determined by an objective formula” and “an inflation factor to account for increased operational costs to be applied in any year in which there is not a full recalculation” of the base student cost. The base student cost represents the amount of money provided to the local school districts multiplied by their enrollment to pay for the basics of operating local schools. The basics include items like teacher salaries, maintenance costs, textbooks and utilities.

House leaders have, apparently, imagined a world where there is no objective school funding formula. They have introduced legislation that, if passed as written, would make that imagined world a reality. The legislation would leave it up to the legislators to decide each session on the amount of funds schools needed to pay for their basic operations.

And based on historical actions, legislators are not going to adequately fund education even when they have a state law mandating they do so. For instance, based on a Parents Campaign study, from 2012 through 2019, for 73 school districts the Legislature did not fund MAEP at the level needed to provide enough money for teacher salaries and benefits — much less for those other needed items such as textbooks and utilities. In other words, those 73 districts had to depend on local property taxes to make up for the deficit.

That happened with an objective formula telling legislators how much schools needed. What would happen without that formula?

Imagine.

It is important to note that the cumulative $1 billion shortfall in funding during the aforementioned four-year period from 2012-1016 does not mean it would have taken $1 billion to fully fund the program. The most MAEP was underfunded any of those four years was $292 million in the 2013 legislative session. When and if the program is fully funded, the increase in funding needed to continue full funding the next year would be relatively minimal.

In other words, state leaders could have fully funded MAEP during that four-year period by eliminating less than half of the tax cuts that were passed.

Oh, and in the 2016 session, the first of the next four-year term, MAEP was underfunded another $191.9 million. But in the 2016 session, legislators were able to pass another tax cut — for $525 million.

Imagine.