Report card: educational progress in jeopardy

by

Published: October 4,2004

State lawmakers must fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) as a top priority in the 2005 legislative session or Mississippi schoolchildren will suffer.

That’s the message former Gov. William Winter and Tupelo businessman Jack Reed have been telling educational leaders during a statewide campaign to create awareness of what’s at stake if the budget is slashed.

“Right now, we’re way in the hole, to put it in simple terms,” said Winter. “To make up the difference in money, most school districts have had to assess extra taxes. In my home county of Grenada, they had to raise it four mills.”

For the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2005, the Mississippi Department of Education is asking legislators for $2.9 billion, which would cover $79.3 million in underfunding for the MAEP, $147 million in one-time revenue used for recurring costs and $155.3 million for an 8% teacher pay raise and other school programs.

‘Still playing catch-up’

State lawmakers have discussed removing the MAEP provision for the mandated teacher pay raise, “but that would be a huge mistake,” said Winter.

“We’re still playing catch-up,” he said. “Only four states spend less per child on education than Mississippi, yet we’re in the middle range of states in terms of academic improvement. We’re really just now beginning to see the benefits of the investments we’ve been making in education, and we’re getting more people interested in teaching as a profession by virtue of providing better salaries. Our position is that it would send all the wrong signals if we start cutting back on teacher pay.”

Mike Waldrup, executive director of the Mississippi School Boards Association, said he would be willing to consider another arrangement for teacher pay raises, such as deferring a percentage of the mandated raise — only if teachers wind up with a better long-term deal.

“We would be willing to consider anything the Legislature wanted to bring forward if we had a strong legislative commitment written into the law to continue the effort to raise teacher salaries, because we’re going to win or lose this battle for education on our ability to recruit and retain qualified teachers,” he said. “That’s crucial.”

One possible scenario: giving teachers a 4% pay raise this year, 4% next year, and 2% to 3% more the following year, said Waldrup.

“Over the next three years, they’d actually get more money,” he said. “The budget picture does look bleak, I agree. A commitment to go more than 8% over three years may be easier to absorb statewide.”

Also at stake for state lawmakers to consider: Mississippi is one of only five states (Delaware, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah are the others) that have not been sued over adequate public school financing.

“We’re not emphasizing this — they’re finding out about it in the Legislature — but Mississippi could very well be sued over this issue,” said Reed. “That would put us in jeopardy.”

John Augenblick, an educational consultant with Augenblick, Palaich & Associates in Denver, warned Senate Education Committee members last month that there is no defense for the state ignoring its own financing formula. The meeting marked a return trip to the state for Augenblick, who had been hired by the blue-ribbon commission named by Winter in 1980 and chaired by Reed to push for education reforms. Augenblick calculated the state’s funding formula, which paved the way for passage of the Mississippi Education Reform Act of 1982.

“Gov. Winter had asked us to form an equity-funding program for the state,” said Reed, who later chaired the first state Board of Education. “We found out that you could not get equity funding at all until you had a total reappraisal of statewide assessment. That brought about the ability to reach a formula, and it’s a very good formula.”

Senate Education Committee member Dean Kirby (R-Pearl) said he believed that chairman Mike Chaney (R-Vicksburg) planned to propose spreading out the teacher pay raise over a two-year period.

“I believe that’s possibly the right solution, but it’s not the total solution,” said Kirby. “At least it’ll get us headed in the right direction. We just have to pray we get in more money than projected, and do a lot of head scratching to properly fund education. It’s going to be tough. We can’t shut down all the state agencies. Others have needs as well, from mental health to highways to Medicaid. We have some real problems and we know that. We’ve just about tapped out all the one-time money. Maybe we’ve reached into too many pots.”

Other elected officials have been seeking possible solutions. Nearly 200 teachers from across Mississippi met with Gov. Haley Barbour September 23 to give him and his staff ideas for education reform. On October 13, House Education Committee members will wrap up a statewide tour of a dozen low-performing and high-performing schools.

But money remains the key issue.

“Not being a budget guru, it’s hard for me to dictate to the Legislature where to find the money,” said Waldrup. “Basically, all I can do is tell the Legislature that if they’re serious about education and want to keep this achievement trend moving upward, it’s imperative that we have qualified teachers in those classrooms. And the only way we’re going to get them is to pay them. It’s not rocket science.”

Beverly Brahan, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said planning meetings in Batesville, Brookhaven, Hattiesburg, Indianola, Jackson, Philadelphia, Tupelo and the Gulf Coast were designed “to bring together this nucleus … of educational leaders in the state’s 150 school districts … to show them how schools are affected by the impact of budget cuts at the state level.”

On September 24, Winter and Reed reported at a press conference that six community meetings had been very well received. Meetings on the Gulf Coast and Philadelphia were postponed until this month because of Hurricane Ivan.

“We simply told educational leaders about the realities of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, how the funding has been inadequate, the danger of it not being fully funded this year, and showed them the significant gains that have been made in recent years under the program,” explained Reed. “All we’re asking for is their support to fully fund the program. The law was passed in 1997. Legislators funded it one time in 2003, which was great. They’ve not fully funded it since then.”

Petition drive hits 100,000
with a new goal of 200,000

A petition drive to garner signatures of 100,000 Mississippi voters who support fully funding MAEP has been so successful that Winter and Reed have a new target: 200,000 signatures.

“I’m delighted to see other people are picking up on it, and that the Legislature is feeling some pressure,” said Reed.
In January, Winter and Reed plan to present the petition to state lawmakers, along with an updated report. When asked if Gov. Haley Barbour supports their efforts, Winter replied that they had “only the understanding that he applauds our efforts in developing support for education, and in the same vein we applaud his efforts.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

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