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Education spending report adds to funding debate

ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — At least once a year, Mississippi lawmakers have the same basic argument about education funding.

One side says: You can’t fix public schools by throwing money at them.

The other side retorts: How would anyone know? The state has never tried it.

A new report from the Census Bureau provides fodder for the debate. While it doesn’t address the quality of public schools, it does provide detailed information about how much money the 50 states and the District of Columbia are spending on elementary and secondary education.

The report uses information from fiscal year 2011, which ran from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, in Mississippi and most other states. A few states have budget years that run from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.

“The 50 states and the District of Columbia spent $10,560 per student in 2011, down 0.4 percent from 2010,” according to a news release that accompanies the Census Bureau report. “The top spenders were New York ($19,076), the District of Columbia ($18,475), Alaska ($16,674), New Jersey ($15,968) and Vermont ($15,925).”

To find Mississippi, look all the way to the bottom of the list: “States spending the least per student were Mississippi ($7,928), Arizona ($7,666), Oklahoma ($7,587), Idaho ($6,824) and Utah ($6,212).”

Curious about per student spending for Mississippi’s neighboring states? It was $8,242 in Tennessee, $8,813 in Alabama, $9,353 in Arkansas and $10,723 in Louisiana.

Mississippi’s education spending dropped 2.4 percent from fiscal year 2010 to FY 2011, the report says.

The 0.4 percent national decrease marked the first year-to-year national drop in education spending since 1977, when the Census Bureau started compiling the information. In 2010, when most states set their FY2011 budgets, the nation was still feeling effects of the Great Recession that started in 2008.

The report also examines the sources of money spent on schools.

“States that had the highest percentage of their total public school revenue coming from federal funding included Mississippi (22.3 percent of the statewide education revenue), South Dakota (20.3 percent), Louisiana (18.7 percent), Alaska (17.8 percent), Florida (17.8 percent) and New Mexico (17.7 percent),” the news release says.

“Conversely, states that had the lowest percentage of their total school revenue coming from federal funding were New Jersey (5.1 percent), New Hampshire (6.5 percent), Vermont (7.1 percent), Massachusetts (7.8 percent), Minnesota (7.8 percent) and Connecticut (8.3 percent).”

So, two things: Mississippi spends way less than many states. And, a significant share of the education money in Mississippi comes from the federal government rather than state or local governments.

This all circles back to poverty — one of Mississippi’s longest standing and most entrenched problems.

Separate reports on the Census Bureau website show that Mississippi’s poverty rate from 2007 to 2011 was 21.6 percent, while the national rate was 14.3 percent. Mississippi’s per capita income for those years was $20,521, while the national figure was $27,915. New York, the state with the highest education spending per student, had a 14.5 percent poverty rate and per capita income of $31,796.

When Mississippi lawmakers debate education budgets, it’s inevitable that at least one person — House or Senate, Democrat or Republican — will stand and say that schools should receive enough money to cover their needs but not a penny more. They insist that schools could be run more efficiently and that the focus should be on classroom instruction.

The Census Bureau’s education report shows Mississippi spent $3.9 billion on elementary and secondary schools in FY2011. Of that amount, $2.2 billion was spent on instruction and $1.4 billion was spent on support services.



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