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Speaker Jason White says House will work to scrap, rewrite public education funding formula

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Speaker Jason White says House will work to scrap, rewrite public education funding formula

Feb 20, 2024 | 11:02 am ET
By Bobby Harrison
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Speaker Jason White says House will work to scrap, rewrite public education funding formula
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Photo courtesy of Mississippi Today

First-year House Speaker Jason White said his intention this year is to “scrap” and “rewrite” the formula that funds Mississippi’s public schools.

The speaker’s blunt statement about the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which has been in place since 1997, signals the continuation of a decades-long debate that has gripped the state’s lawmakers for decades.

“We are going to pass that probably in the next two weeks in the House,” White told SuperTalk on Monday of a House plan to rewrite the funding formula.

White did not say in the interview whether the House’s proposed rewrite will include an objective formula to determine the amount of money needed for a school district to provide an adequate education — a point of consternation and legislative debate over the years.

In the 2010s, White was among the House Republicans who tried to rewrite MAEP to remove any objective funding formula. Instead, the legislative leadership wanted lawmakers to determine the amount of money local school districts needed each year.

READ MORE: Could this be the year political games end and MAEP is funded and fixed?

White has long said MAEP is too complicated. But the concept behind MAEP is simple: Through an objective formula, a base student cost for schools is developed. The state provides school districts with a certain percentage of that base student cost for each student enrolled. The state provides more of the base student cost for poorer districts and less for more affluent districts.

People who supported the rewrite have said the state cannot afford to fund MAEP, which has been underfunded by $3.52 billion since 2008. For the current fiscal year, fully funding MAEP would have required an additional $175 million — a seemingly attainable goal considering the state’s record multi-billion dollar revenue surplus and the $525 million tax cut lawmakers passed last year.

The most recent effort to rewrite MAEP died a dramatic death in the Senate in the 2018 session. Since then, there has been no effort to rewrite the formula.

Last session, however, the Senate passed a proposal to make changes to the formula, including requiring wealthy school districts to contribute more to the formula and limiting the possible year-over-year growth in the formula. Along with those changes, the Senate passed legislation to fully fund the formula for the first time since 2007.

The House leadership, under former Speaker Philip Gunn and then-Pro Tem Jason White, rejected that effort. Senate Education Chairman Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, has again filed legislation this year to try to make similar changes to “fix” the formula.

The House leadership this year has presumably filed a bill to rewrite the formula. That bill is expected to be publicly accessible as early as Tuesday. It is not clear whether the bill will detail the changes being proposed by White and other House leaders or just include the relevant legal code sections, allowing House leaders to unveil the specifics later in the session.

White’s radio interviewer on Monday opined that he did not know if MAEP is good for children, but pointed out that it is good for Democrats because they used it to lambaste Republicans for not fully funding education.

White said the formula was difficult to fully fund because it increased by a significant amount each year. But studies have shown that in most years the increase in the formula would be minimal after full funding was achieved.

The formula has been fully funded only twice since 2003 even though every governor since then — Haley Barbour, Phil Bryant and Tate Reeves — have committed to full funding at some point during their political tenure.

READ MORE: Gov. Tate Reeves supported fully funding public education before he was against it