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Senate Republicans support school funding set in House bill

The next version of a bill to change Mississippi’s $2 billion-plus education funding formula won’t immediately increase proposed funding levels for schools, but might adjust funding upward sooner than the eight years the House proposes.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison discussed possible Senate changes to House Bill 957 Wednesday, after his committee discussed the House-passed bill.

Tollison, an Oxford Republican, said his committee is likely to vote on changes next week, before a Tuesday deadline. None of those proposed changes were revealed Wednesday, though, and Tollison said Senate leaders are still discussing how to write what could be a once-in-a-generation change to Mississippi’s largest budget item.

The new formula would replace the current Mississippi Adequate Education Program. The bill envisions increasing funding by $107 million over seven years. Even then, it would spend $157 million less than the current formula legally mandates next year.

Opponents say Republican proposals leave schools worse off than under the current formula, even though it’s been fully funded only twice since it was fully implemented.

“At the end of the day, every single district is going to get a smaller check than if we funded the existing formula,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, an Amory Democrat.

Those who question the new plan also say, that despite public meetings in recent days, proponents haven’t really justified the proposal in public. Bryan, for example, said he’s willing to discuss spending on special education services, but said there’s been no serious discussion of how the new plan is better than the current one.

“That’s the sort of discussion and analysis that needs to be taking place and it needs to take place in public,” Bryan said Wednesday.

EdBuild, a nonprofit group that designed the new formula, recommended a plan where every student would get $4,840, and then get additional amounts per student for special education students, gifted students, high school students and those learning English. Extremely rural districts also would get an extra bump.

The House cut that base student cost to $4,800, and Tollison said he doesn’t anticipate revising it upward.

The House also envisions a two-year period where little would change before a gradual phase-in of the new formula begins in 2021. However, Tollison said the House-passed language needs to be more specific, or else it won’t clearly say how much each school district should get next year. The House proposes an additional $8 million for districts with increasing enrollment next year. It’s unclear how that small increase is supposed to be distributed.

Figures distributed Wednesday show the new formula would fully take effect by the 2022 budget for a majority of districts, and those districts would only gain money after that if enrollment increased. Dating back to the 2017 budget, that could mean flat funding for eight of 10 years.

Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First, supports the changes, but said that’s too long for districts with stable enrollment to go fall behind inflation.

“School districts need to see a real increase in that base student cost before 2026,” Canter said.

Tollison reiterated that he won’t change property tax rules that cap a district’s current local property tax contribution at 27 percent of the combined state and local funding demanded by the formula, even though EdBuild wants to abolish that rule, saying it’s an unfair subsidy for property-rich districts.

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