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.
“Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and shew the whole world, that a Freeman contending for Liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.”
― George Washington
It is amazing watching the aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. One thing which has struck me is the surprise on some people’s parts as to a group of people wanting to be distinct, independent, and separate from the larger group. This just seems a little ironic when you look back on all of human history with this same scenario occurring over and over again. Whether its the Roman, Greek, Babylonian, Austro-Hungarian, or any of the other countless empires that have attempted bring together people into one group, there has always been a tendency of groups to want to remain distinct. The same can be seen in modern countries such as Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, or Iraq which were not formed directly through conquest. For a nation to remain unified, it must share some sort of uniting cultural commonality.
The cultural glue may be ideals, language, values, or religion held in common, but there must be something which holds people together or the groups within the larger group who do share some of these things will begin to come together and eventually desire to self-direct their own future. Personally, I think this tendency of people will occur in spite of all of the positive economic or standard of living benefits of remaining in their current unified state. In the case of the United States, in my opinion, it was always a belief in freedom of the individual, agreement on the fundamental principles of our democratic republic as outlined in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, and agreement on the need for all of us to respect the rule of law governing disagreements we might have with one another. I would argue that this has always allowed us to overcome the tendency to want to break apart and divide on the basis of our differing cultural and religious beliefs. We all shared the common idea that freedom of the individual is of the utmost importance and our form of democratic limited government protected that freedom from others, both within and without, imposing their will upon us as individuals.
The big question, I suppose, for our future is whether we will keep these common beliefs which bind our country together as a unit. If we do not agree upon such overriding ideals which can hold us together, the various differences which have always been present in our country will inevitably weaken us to some degree or another. Our country has always been unique and strong because of our ability to take various peoples from various differing backgrounds and come together because of our love for the beliefs that make the United States a united country based not upon common ethnicity or race, but upon common ideals. I sincerely hope we all do our best to make sure this is always the case for ourselves and future generations by recommitting to these ideals and emphasizing them to our young people as being the glue which has been able to hold us together thus far.
GEORGE: Now, just remember that this thing isn’t as black as it appears.
As George speaks, sirens are heard passing in the street below. The crowd turn to the windows, then back to George.
GEORGE: I have some news for you, folks. I’ve just talked to old man Potter, and he’s guaranteed cash payments at the bank. The bank’s going to reopen next week.
ED: But, George, I got my money here.
CHARLIE: Did he guarantee this place?
GEORGE: Well, no, Charlie. I didn’t even ask him. We don’t need Potter over here.
Mary and Ernie have come into the room during this scene.
Mary stands watching silently.
CHARLIE: I’ll take mine now.
GEORGE: No, but you… you… you’re thinking of this place all wrong.
As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here
Your money’s in Joe’s house…
(to one of the men)
…right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin’s house, and a hundred others. Why, you’re lending them the money to build, and then, they’re going to pay it back to you as best they can.
Now what are you going to do? Foreclose on them?
TOM: I got two hundred and forty-two dollars in here, and two hundred and forty-two dollars isn’t going to break anybody.
GEORGE: (handing him a slip) Okay, Tom. All right. Here you are. You sign this. You’ll get your money in sixty days.
TOM: Sixty days?
GEORGE: Well, now that’s what you agreed to when you bought your shares.
There is a commotion at the outer doors.
A man (Randall)comes in and makes his way up to Tom.
RANDALL: Tom… Tom, did you get your money?
RANDALL: Well, I did. Old man Potter’ll pay fifty cents on the dollar for every share you got.
CROWD: Fifty cents on the dollar!
RANDALL: Yes, cash!
TOM: (to George) Well, what do you say?
GEORGE: Now, Tom, you have to stick to your original agreement. Now give us sixty days on this.
TOM: (turning to Randall) Okay, Randall.
Tom starts out…
A few other people start for the door. George vaults over the counter quickly, speaking to the people.
GEORGE: Tom! Tom! Randall! Now wait… now listen… now listen to me.
I beg of you not to do this thing. If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan there’ll never be another decent house built in this town. He’s already got charge of the bank. He’s got the bus line. He’s got the department. And now he’s after us. Why? Well, it’s very simple. Because we’re cutting in on his business, that’s why. And because he wants to keep you living in his slums and paying the kind of rent he decides.
The people are still trying to get out, but some of them have stood still, listening to him. George has begun to make an impression on them.
GEORGE: Joe, you lived in one of his houses, didn’t you? Well, have you forgotten? Have you forgotten what he charged you for that broken-down shack?
Here, Ed. You know, you remember last year when things weren’t going so well, and you couldn’t make your payments. You didn’t lose your house, did you? Do you think Potter would have let you keep it?
(turns to address the room again)
Can’t you understand what’s happening? Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling. Potter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicky and he’s not. That’s why. He’s picking up some bargains. Now, we can get this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.
– It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
The scene outlined above is one of my favorites from one of my favorite Christmas films, It’s a Wonderful Life. George is, of course, making the case why the individual member of the community who is being served by the local building and loan must not decide to pull their funds out at once or else the whole institution will collapse. George is having a hard time convincing the individuals to think larger than themselves and to consider the institution and what it provides to the community. I found myself mentally coming back to this particular scene as I thought about the recent efforts to push so-called “school choice” in Mississippi. I believe this particular scene in the movie provides us with great insight into our present situation in Mississippi public education by illustrating the main elements of the “school choice” movement in regards to motivation, action, and consequences.
In the film, there is a “run” on the building and loan by many of the customers with deposit accounts (checking and savings). The “building and loan” which Bailey managed was basically a small community bank which shareholders throughout the community owned. The customers in the building and loan were the actual shareholders as all had a stake in it. This is in contrast to the larger bank in town which was run mainly by Mr. Potter. The “building and loan” in the film was designed to serve the community by reinvesting funds back into the community. While in the film, the bank’s primary function was to maximize profits. At the moment of the “run” on the building and loan, many of the customers with deposit accounts had no loans from the building and loan. But, when they needed its lending services in the past, it was the only option which could meet their lending needs by providing loans for quality homes at fair and reasonable interest rates. In effect, the building and loan was a sort of social insurance to the whole community when and if they had a need for it. Yet this insurance could only exist by all members of the group sticking together and staying in the “pool” of customers, some borrowing money and many more depositing money which the building and loan used to make the loans. With the recent push by lobbying groups and politicians to increase “school choice” by enabling per student tax dollars to follow the student and flow into alternative charter or private schools, it seems especially important to remind taxpayers of how their local, public school provides a form of educational insurance to meet the sometimes extreme needs of students much like Bailey’s Building and Loan met its community’s financial needs.
At this point, I believe we all know how the “school choice” system (or scheme) works. Schools are funded by the state based upon each student who attends. The state has a certain amount it gives to the public school district per individual child enrolled to educate students in the district. “School choice” seeks to allow that money to be used to fund tuition at a non-public school by giving the child a voucher or tax credit to spend based upon this money. the charter or private school then receives this per student funding. If the amount of state reimbursement is $3,500/year and one student left to attend a non-public school, that $3,500/year money would flow to the non-public school which the child chose to attend. These funds would thus be diverted from the public school in that community and would essentially be cut from its budget or the shared budget of all public schools from state funding. This sounds perfectly reasonable on the surface. I mean, if the state gives $3,500/year to educate a child, then what does it matter if the money and that child leave the public school? The school where the child enrolls gets the money and one might think this will simply reimburse the charter/private school for the cost of his or her education. However, there is only one problem with that logic, and this problem rests in one simple word, “average.”
Funding amounts per student are based upon averages, not real dollar amounts required to educate a particular child. This key difference can be illustrated by using a business analogy. Imagine you work for a company as a full-time (40+ hours per week) employee. However, this company has only ten full-time employees, counting you, with many more being part-time (less than 20 hours per week). In fact, the company works a total of twenty-five part-time employees in comparison to the ten full-time. At the end of the week it is pay day and the company has a meeting when it is time to give out the checks. The boss tells all employees there has been a slight change in the way everyone will be paid this week. Instead of different check amounts, all employees will now make the exact same for their week of work. Both, full-time and part-time regardless of experience or any other factor will make the exact same. This is, of course, perfectly fair from the bosses perspective because the exact same amount is being paid out by management this week as the week before. The only difference is that now everyone will make the “average” rate of pay calculated per employee. Naturally, you and the other nine full-time employees would be very supportive of this change, correct? No, both common sense and fairness require the pay to not be based upon an “average.” As you can see, in the real world of dollars and cents, the average is good for very little other than having a mathematical conversation.
Likewise, the school district is reimbursed on this same average amount to pay for the expenses to provide a free and appropriate education for each child. However, the cost of such an education can vary a great deal from this average. The child who has autism and requires intensive therapies by specialized staff during the day requires much more to educate than this average. The child from a poor family who has moved eight times during the last year and who stays for hours by herself every evening as her parents go to their second job will probably require greater help to stay caught up in reading than a child without these disadvantages. This help will require more money for the interventionists and tutors who work with her in a small group while the other students are all working in the regular classroom. There are countless other examples of students who require more resources to educate during the day than other students. Students without these special situations, who are able to keep up in the regular classroom without extra help, require much less funding to receive a quality education than these others. However, the average sees all of these children the same in regards to the cost of their education.
To return to the movie analogy, if you are fortunate enough to have a child who requires no additional help to keep up and receive a quality education, you are much like the large group of deposit account holders at the building and loan. The average amount of dollars which follow your child more than cover the cost of your child’s education. What happens to these excess funds that exceed the cost of your child’s education? The excess amount funds the needs of the other students within the school district who have educational needs which require more money than their average amount is able to afford. Those students with these extra needs are like those who borrow money from the Bailey Building and Loan to obtain decent housing or to cover expenses. Just as George told those depositors in the film, your money is not in a safe the back of the building, “your money is in Joe’s house.” The building and loan was a cooperative organization with all of its members depending on the one another to provide enough funding for the common benefit and to provide a sort of insurance against the risk of needing a loan in the future at reasonable terms and being unable to get it. Just like you as the parent of the child who is educated without the extra services with their expenses, your child is in effect paying for the education of the other children since his or her educational services cost less. However, the exchange is that when you have your next child and that child is born with Down Syndrome, that child will now receive the same “insurance coverage” from the excess funds provided by their counterparts in the school district who do not require their full “average” funding to meet their needs. The funding following your child is not in the back room or the school bank account; the funding following your child is literally in the child across the room or down the hall.
If you are with me thus far, you can see how the public schools function as the same type of cooperative providing needed services and risk protection for all children in the state just as the building and loan provided for the needs and protection from risk for the members of the community of Bedford Falls. However, there is another institution which we have a need to recognize in this analogy. That is Potter’s bank. Potter’s bank in the story is an institution driven by profits primarily for Mr. Potter and whatever other few shareholders the bank possesses. This is the situation with many of the “charter schools” which operate for a profit in states where “school choice” is being implemented. Many of these companies are for-profit businesses which seek to educate children for less than the money reimbursed by the state and keep the remainder as profit. How do they do this? Are they really that much more efficient than the public schools? While there is no doubt there are examples of waste out of the thousands and thousands of public schools in our country, efficiency is not behind the potential profits of the charter/private school receiving average student reimbursement from the state in a “school choice” scenario. No, the secret formula of their profits lies again in one word, “average.” The students who attend the charter or private school are not the students who require the greatest needs and with those needs the greater expenses. While there are many reasons and ways that these schools only end up enrolling these students with less expensive needs, they are too lengthy to go into here. However, in short, charter and private schools traditionally market themselves to parents based upon greater and more rigorous academics in preparation for college. However, as you might imagine, for many parents of students with special needs children is not their chief concern. These parents of special needs children are much more likely to be more concerned with life skills and the abilities which allow independent living. There are also financial aspects which allow children with less financially stable home situations who are more likely to be behind their peers due to stress and less time available for their parents to be provide academic help at home to be filtered out of the charter school enrollees. Many, if not most, charter or private schools do not provide free transportation and transporting a student to and from school by car requires greater expenses on the part of parents and the time off work to provide this transportation. Through these and many other “filters” charter or private schools end up with a pool of students who are generally more affluent, more involved with their student’s education, or a combination of both of these traits. Thus, charter schools are like Potter’s bank, they desire to have the cash depositors (students who can be educated with less expense) to bring their money (the average state reimbursement which follows the student) from the building and loan (the public school) and put in into Potter’s bank (the charter or private school).
If the “run” on the bank happens, the deposit account holders will go to Potter’s bank taking their funds leaving only those with loans at the Bailey Building and Loan. I think we all know what happens to the Bailey Building and Loan in this scenario, it collapses unable to provide the loan services it needs to those customers without the capital funds of the depositors. The only way the Bailey Building and Loan would not collapse in this scenario would be to have a sudden infusion of funds allowing it to still provide loans. Essentially, someone like the government would have to bail out the building and loan to keep it from closing altogether. I think we all have enough common sense to know who foots the bill when the government has to bail someone out, you the taxpayer. Unless you are willing to allow the building and loan to collapse, much more money will be spent propping it up financially while still sending the average funding to the charter/private school to make its profits than ever was required before the charter siphoned off the children whose education is less expensive to provide. This is the reason “school choice” with tax money following the student into the accounts of the charter/private school, if allowed to continue unhindered will inevitably result in public school districts either closing their doors or requiring huge infusions of taxpayer cash to cover the actual education expenses of the students who are left (the students with the greatest needs). Yes, money is made in “school choice” schemes, but the money is made on the back of the taxpayer and goes into the pocket of the company operating the charter/private school.
The crisis scene of It’s a Wonderful Life ends on a happy note as most of the community members with money in the building and loan realize the sense in what George is telling them. They see that they are investors and partners in a cooperative partnership with the other community members providing resources and opportunities when and if they need the services of the institution. This type of partnership cannot be accomplished without everyone paying into the pool, both those who need the greater services and those who do not. My friends, we are all taxpayers, we have no choice in the matter and our state constitution mandates that all children will receive a free education. Therefore, we cannot opt out of paying for this education for each and every child. The only question is whether we want to invest these tax funds into the students who need the services and into our community members, or whether we will give the investment to Mr. Potter and his handful of shareholders and abandon the cooperative we have together. Make no mistake, the end result in years to come can only be the ending of education for every child or even more money required to fund the education of children needing higher than average expenses while at the same time maintaining the profit margin of the charter/private school shareholders.