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Senate passes level education funding

By BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal

The Senate leadership broke with the House on Thursday and opted to fund kindergarten through 12th grade education in the regular session.

The House, based on the recommendation of Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, was planning to wait for an anticipated special session to provide funds for the local school districts. Gunn had said it would make more sense to couple education funding to the ongoing effort by the House and Senate leadership to rewrite the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which is the mechanism that provides state funding to the local school districts.

Efforts to rewrite the funding formula stalled during the regular session when a consensus could not reached by legislators. Since the leadership missed the legislative deadlines to pass a rewrite bill in the regular session, the plan has been to take up the issue in special session – perhaps a special session within the current session.

But on Thursday, the Senate leadership made it clear that it does not plan to wait for a special session to fund the local school districts for the upcoming school year. The Senate Appropriations Committee passed a bill to fund the Adequate Education Program at $2.24 billion, which is level funding and is about $175 million less than full funding. Overall education funding for K-12, including money to run the state Department of Education and special schools like the Math and Science School, is $2.52 billion – $13.2 million above the current level.

The extra funds will be used to pay for a program to provide pay raises for the staff of high performing and improving school districts.

Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said the Senate leadership opted not to wait until a special session to fund MAEP because any rewrite “would have minimum impact” on the upcoming school year.

Gunn said the fact that the Senate funded MAEP during the regular session has not changed the goal of having a rewrite proposal passed in special session – hopefully before the regular session ends. And he said he hopes the rewrite phase-in will begin for the upcoming school year, although he conceded the full enactment of any rewrite would take multiple years.

In a statement, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said he is glad the Senate proposal provides education extra funding to pay for the first year of a plan to give a pay raise for the staff in top performing and improving schools and to level-fund MAEP at a time when most agencies are facing cuts.

Of the rewrite effort, Reeves said, “From the beginning of this process, I have said I’m more interested in getting the modernization of the education funding formula done the right way, not the quickest way.” By funding MAEP in the regular session, “Schools can plan for the next year as the Senate and House continue work to create a formula that meets today’s classroom needs.”

The education budget will not be resolved until the final days of the session in late March when the Legislature is slated to vote on the overall budget.

Most state agencies are facing more cuts because of a prolonged period of sluggish revenue collections.

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