Last week’s derailment of what had once looked like a legislative freight train might provide the opportunity. Unable to decide on what proposals to bring forward, leaders in the House and Senate both abandoned placeholder bills to die at Thursday’s deadline. The issue could still come back this year, but lawmakers will probably need Gov. Phil Bryant to call a special session.
The process crashed in part because far too many people don’t understand what consulting group EdBuild proposed, or how the scenario put forward by the nonprofit group could be modified.
Republican leaders should blame themselves for the widespread ignorance, never unveiling an official set of numbers and discussing options only in closed-door talks between Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn. When supporters of changes have been willing to talk, backers of the current Mississippi Adequate Education Program have plugged up their ears — even the ones whose home districts could end up with more state money than the current formula would provide at full funding.
The effort has been a mess from the start, with EdBuild restricted to meetings blessed by staff members of Gunn and Reeves, except for one shout-fest of a public hearing at the Capitol on a weekday afternoon. Then, when the consultant finally reported weeks into the legislative session, there were no numbers for the plan’s overall impact on the state budget, or its impact on individual districts. Lawmakers said that’s because they hadn’t decided what to do yet, but they could have easily told EdBuild to present a range of scenarios. Many local superintendents and The Associated Press did the math anyway — one virtue of EdBuild’s formula is its simplicity.
And it’s clear that someone in the House looked at some numbers, because lawmakers decided to reject EdBuild’s proposal to have property-rich districts contribute a greater share of the formula cost. Gunn’s lieutenants instead announced that local district contributions would remain capped at 27 percent of formula cost, as they are now under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Felicitously, that decision would ensure the Madison County school system, which Gunn partly represents and whose superintendent lobbied heavily against higher local contributions, wouldn’t be required to cut spending or raise taxes.
That left House members, and eventually senators as well, advocating a scenario that could require so much more state money that it would come close to the additional $172 million needed this year to fully fund the current formula. And that’s weird because Republicans have spent much of the last decade pleading that they’d like to pay the tab currently required by law, but just can’t scrape up the cash. Now with flagging tax revenues and an anemic economy, they can afford a big infusion?
And then Gunn seemed to get cold feet on even that plan, instead opting to do nothing, leading Reeves to pull back as well.
Even for those who believe Mississippi’s schools need a lot more cash, EdBuild’s analysis should raise some troubling questions. Is the local contribution cap truly equitable? Why should the state fund vocational and gifted programs at wildly varying per-student levels in different districts? And why should more affluent districts get reimbursed for the district salary supplements paid to some teachers using local property taxes, when property-poor districts get less money because they can only afford the state minimum salary?
Those and other issues could be hashed out in the open. It’s not too late to educate people, if anyone still believes in that sort of thing.