Okay, so I have had a couple of requests to summarize the changes proposed in HB 957 and the proposed effect for the future of public education in Mississippi. While there are many others with a better ability to explain the changes and their implications, I will try to do the best I can with my current understanding. The bill would effectively replace the current Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). It is a significant bill and does drastically change the way Mississippi “should” fund public education each year in our state. While there are many changes to the current funding law for our schools by this bill, I will look briefly at the most obvious one and that is the change to “base student cost.”
The change in base student cost, which is the amount of money given to districts per child for the expense of their education, can and will likely have an impact on local school district funding and local taxes in the future. MAEP used a formula to determine this cost which looked at districts that were doing an “average” job, according to accountability measures, of educating their students and using the spending needed by those districts to accomplish this goal to determine the base student cost to reimburse each year. You may be asking several questions at this point. Why would this amount be different for each district across the state? Shouldn’t it be the same? Why would this average spent per student from these average performing districts change the amount the state gives?
The answer lies in where districts mainly get their money to pay for educating their students. The majority of it typically comes from the state (which is the topic we are discussing), but individual districts use their share of local property taxes (land, houses, etc.) to supplement the money from the state. This amount can vary HUGELY from district to district. The value of property in each district can vary to large degrees (think DeSoto County vs. Kemper County) and the percent used of the available property tax rate for schools may also vary. So let’s say you live in the very poor “County X” with little or no industry and little value in property, their school district can make a request each year to increase their share of local property taxes in “County X” to attempt to get the funds needed to provide for students to be well-educated to the maximum percentage set by state law. So very economically poor “County X” has now maxed out its share of property taxes for all of its property (which is mainly all of low value), but “County X” still has very little money from this source to add to the money coming from the state for education, despite its maxed out rate, due to the fact property is simply not highly valued in that area. Now, “County Y” is on the other end of the state and has huge industry with vibrant economic development. In “County Y” the businesses are many, the houses are large, and the property values are high. “County Y” does not request each year to increase its percent of available property tax money. This is because the smaller percentage is so large an amount of money (bigger pie equals bigger pieces), it does not need to max the rate out to get plenty of local funds. Thus, “County Y” has much, much more local money to spend per student, despite its lower rate of education property tax, than “County X” has, despite its maxed out rate. As you can see, if more local education money is needed, “County Y” can raise their rate, because it is not reached the maximum allowed by state law. But, poorer “County X” can only sit back and decide what will go unpaid and unsupplied in the district.
Now in the above example, who knows who is doing better academically at the end of the year. Maybe, it is “County X,” but it is probably going to be “County Y.” Regardless, MAEP is like a honey badger in the sense that “it don’t care” who is spending more or less at the beginning. All MAEP is concerned about is listing performance for students and doing the math to determine the amount of total average money spent to get this average performance result. Once this amount of money is determined (which is done every four years), the base student cost is updated and the state uses this to “recommend” to the legislature the amount to allocate per pupil for each district. This is base student cost. Now, I am leaving out some other MAEP details, such as the fact the cost goes up a little per year due to inflation and some other details. But, the main point is that MAEP looks at what it takes to educate an average performing student and updates it every four years to determine the base amount to give all districts per student, with the idea this is the minimal, adequate amount needed for a student achieve average performance.
Now, the big change with HB 957 is that it gets rid of this formula and says the amount is now $4,800 per student. This move is being criticized because the whole point of the above formula was to make a logical and somewhat scientific determination of how much minimum spending it takes per student to achieve average results and replaces this objectively determined number with a number made up on the spot. Again, so what? I mean what is the big deal if the number is made up out of thin air, as long as it works out well for your district to get its funding?
Well, here is the rub. While the breakdown of increase or decrease of funding for each district may seem higher as listed in local newspapers under the new law, this amount is an increase based only upon the amount funded last year for that district, which was less than what MAEP says each district needs to adequately educate its students. Right now MAEP is figured using some of the calculations mentioned above and is standing there waiting every year and figuratively staring the legislature and governor in the face. It is basically saying with real, hard data, this is the number that needs to be funded per student, objectively. With the formula and hard data gone to be replaced with a made-up number, there is nothing holding them accountable to fund at a certain amount based on data. If ten years from now, the legislature comes in and changes that number to $3,800, there is no real data to say this number is not just as valid. Another issue is that this number does not adjust automatically, once fully implemented. With MAEP figuring that average cost for average performance base student cost, the amount typically will go up over time as costs increase. Without this type of recalculation, the new bill’s $4,800 per student will have less and less buying power over time. Like your father’s salary when you were a child, what was a large number then in buying power becomes a smaller number in buying power every year, until decades later it almost seems a funny joke unless it is raised over time (i.e. Cokes were a nickel back in my day). There is no mechanism for inflation or other adjustments to raise this base $4,800 amount from year to year as it more than likely is capable of buying less and less.
Some might say, “Hey, the legislature almost never funds the current MAEP amount anyway, so who cares about the rewrite. I mean they give schools what they feel like giving, despite the formula they adopted themselves and various governors have voiced approval for, including current Gov. Bryant. What’s the difference now?” In response to this, there really is not a huge difference other than the issue of how easily schools can be starved for funding without an automatic means of accountability or political consequences due to MAEP being an existing law. Currently, MAEP is like a divorce settlement document that spells out how much child support the mother (school districts) is due from the father (state government) each month to provide for the father’s share of the children’s needs based upon that year’s cost for insurance, baby sitting, etc. Now, in this analogy, the father has been defying the divorce settlement for years and years. Month after month, he says in effect, “I’m sorry baby, but times are tough. I’ll send what I can.” The mother just keeps making up the difference out of her income (local taxes). Then, every year or two, good old dad sends a check with the amount that was legally due for the first time in ages, and wants mom to praise him and be tickled for him simply doing one month what he was supposed to do every month for years. Now, the mother does not make a big deal of this and just keeps the peace, despite being shorted. However, what would you think would be her reaction if and when the father calls her up and says, “Hey babe, guess what? I think it’s time we rewrote our divorce settlement. I mean, we both know it’s not realistic, and I say we just lower it and set a number without all this yearly increase mumbo-jumbo. The kids are almost school age, so just figure how much it costs you right now and let’s set that number. I mean it’s not like food, insurance, or other stuff goes up every year. Besides, you know me, I’ll treat ya right, if you need more cash in the future. Daddy is good for it!” Would this be something advisable, in your opinion, for the mother to agree upon? My opinion would be, if you think the mother should gladly agree to a new settlement, then you will certainly have no concerns with HB 957 in relation to local schools. But, if you think the mother would be unwise to revise the current formula for Dad’s new plan, even though Dad has almost never kept his end of the current agreement anyway, then you probably would have issues with making this drastic a change to the current MAEP funding formula for schools. Personally, while I do think a divorce settlement (state education funding law) that is constantly being violated (underfunding by the legislature almost every year) is a problem that needs addressing, I think the only way a fair settlement will be created is if mother (the local school districts) and father (the state government) both sit down at the same table and come up with a real plan that address real-world funding that is needed and will be needed from year to year with an understanding of how accountability measures will be in place to make sure both mother and father actually follow-through. I can say without reservation that this current bill, HB 957, is definitely not this type of realistic agreement where both sides’ needs are addressed in a way that both sides actually understand.
– Clint Stroupe
*If anything in the above article seems factually incorrect, please let me know. Also, the view expressed, as always, are my own personal views and in no way affiliated with anyone else or any other entity.