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Education a priority for business community

The importance of education to the Mississippi business community was probably best summed up by Gov. Haley Barbour in his recent State of the State address.

“Education is the No. 1 economic development issue in Mississippi and in every other state and is our No. 1 quality of life issue, too. That is why it is our top priority and why it receives 62% of the budget,” said Barbour.

Barbour went on to say because the State Department of Education has determined it will require a substantially smaller increase than previously estimated, he is confident he will sign an appropriation to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) formula for next year. “I expect that formula to be funded consistently at 100% in the years to come,” said Barbour.

MAEP is a complicated formula designed to ensure each school district receives enough money for K-12 grades to meet mid-level accreditation standards. The formula was added to state law about 10 years ago and phased in over several years. It has been fully funded only once-during the last statewide election year in 2003. Supporters are hoping this will be the second time the MAEP is fully funded.

Conflict brewing

A conflict appeared to be brewing over the education budget weeks before the legislative session began January 2. While House leaders were pushing for full funding of MAEP, Barbour and some top senators were initially saying it might not be possible to fulfill MAEP’s mandates without harming other state functions.

The Mississippi House passed its MAEP bill January 11 by a vote of 119-1. The House passed a companion bill to raise teachers’ pay by 3%. The Senate has not yet begun to take up MAEP and other education bills.

A number of business-related associations have publicly stated their support of fully funding education as well as funding higher education. “The business community understands the link between quality public education and a strong workforce. If Mississippi is to move forward and be successful in our economic development efforts, we must invest in a quality public education system. It is the best investment a state can make,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents’ Campaign in Jackson.

The Parents’ Campaign is a grassroots organization designed to ensure a quality education for all Mississippi children.
Loome, who lives in Clinton, said the business community does support fully funding MAEP. She cited the Mississippi Economic Council, the state chamber of commerce, as one of the business support groups for fully funding education.

“The Senate should move quickly to fund the MAEP. Our school districts will be at a serious disadvantage if the funding vote is delayed. Neighboring states will recruit away many of our best teachers in February and March while our school districts wait for our Legislature to get around to a funding vote,” said Loome.

She said The Parents’ Campaign welcomes support from all Mississippians. “Certainly the business community has a vested interest in quality public schools. Economic development will continue to be a challenge for Mississippi so long as we rank 48th out of the 50 states in our funding commitment to education. The days of low wage, labor intensive jobs are rapidly disappearing. Well-educated men and women are our hope for a prosperous future. Full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program is a strong step in the right direction,” said Loome.

Rep. Cecil Brown of Jackson, a Democrat who heads up the education committee in the House, said it passed out full funding for MAEP in the second week of the session. “It’s only the second time that I’ve been involved we’ve passed it this early. Normally, it isn’t done until March,” said Brown.

Brown has been a legislator eight years and was involved with the budget four years before that in the Governor’s Office.
“I’m encouraged that the Senate is going to get it done before March,” said Brown.

Brown noted his business background is helpful in dealing with the budgets. He said the business community knows where he stands in funding education.

Not only has the House voted to fully fund MAEP, but it has passed funding for universities and colleges and community colleges. It also proposes raises for teachers and assistant teachers.

Brown said the House and Senate normally have differences of position in the various education bills, but he believes the differences can be worked out.

A few differences

Sen. Mike Chaney of Vicksburg, chairman of the Senate education committee, said the Senate will fully fund MAEP by February 21. “If we get into negotiating problems with the House, it will be mid-March,” he said.

The Senate will introduce its own appropriations bills related to education. Chaney said there are several things in the house bill that the Senate disagrees with. For example, the house bill has a $1,000 raise for assistant teachers, which is a larger percentage than a raise proposed for classroom teachers.

Chaney, who is a businessman/farmer, said the Senate also wants to put “more dollars for school supplies in the senate bill than in the house bill.”

“We have a bill that will pay teachers a $5,000 salary supplement to go into critical shortage areas of the state and teach,” said Chaney.

Solid education, skilled workforce

Scott Waller, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Mississippi Economic Council (MEC), said his organization is supportive of education and fully funding MAEP. The full funding and the redesigning education initiative for grades K-12 head the list of priorities for the MEC during the current legislative session.

He noted it is MEC’s view that the key to providing an adequate workforce for Mississippi’s businesses and industry is to support improvements in the state’s education system.

Waller said in addition to supporting full funding of the state’s public school system, “sustainable funding is also needed for community colleges and the state’s higher education system.”

The MEC further demonstrated its support of full education funding through its Trailblazer Tour in 2006. The goal was to raise public awareness about the close connection between education and the well-being of Mississippi’s economy.

Specific goals of the tour included creating a skilled workforce in the state, improving Mississippi’s business climate and creating a stronger economy throughout the state.

Redesigning for the future

More than 2,800 business and community leaders from around Mississippi provided feedback on the State Department of Education’s proposed “Redesigning Education for the 21st Century Workforce in Mississippi.”

Jay Moon, executive director of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association (MMA), said his organization has not taken a position on fully funding MAEP, but “we, like most associations, are very supportive.”

He noted the MMA works closely with community colleges and “we think all of them (different levels of education) need resources to be able to do what they need to do.”

“While we very much support education, we need to have a better understanding of how the resources are utilized,” said Moon


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