Senators reject change to Mississippi school funding formula
By JEFF AMY
Mar. 01, 2018
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A crucial minority of Republican senators broke ranks and shot down an attempt to rewrite Mississippi's public school funding formula Thursday, dealing a fatal blow to a top priority of GOP leaders.
A 27-21 procedural vote in the state Senate defeated House Bill 957 , which would have replaced the state's 21-year-old Mississippi Adequate Education Program with a new formula.
"That bill is dead," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, an Oxford Republican who was a prime advocate of the measure.
Supporters said the proposed formula would have been simpler and distributed more resources to districts based on their students' needs. But traditional public school advocates mounted a lengthy attack on the new plan, and the effort never closed the sale with many local school superintendents. Local opposition was cited as a reason by several Republicans who voted to kill it.
"I could not find anyone who was advising me to support this," said Chad McMahan, a Guntown Republican who voted among those who killed the bill. He said he had consulted superintendents, parents, teachers and business people among the four school systems in his northeast Mississippi district.
The bill would have provided a base student cost of $4,800, allocated to educate a student with no special requirements. It would have added extra per-student amounts for special education students, gifted students, high school students and those learning English. Extremely rural districts also would have gotten an extra bump.
The vote came after a yearslong effort that mixed policy and politics, in which the GOP had won at every turn until now. First, Republican leaders persuaded voters to reject a 2015 constitutional amendment meant to enshrine a funding guarantee in the state Constitution. Then their lawyers persuaded the state Supreme Court in October to reject a lawsuit by former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove that sought to force lawmakers to live up to a legal guarantee to fully fund the current formula.
Even before then, Republicans hired consulting firm EdBuild, which reported a set of rewrite recommendations in January 2017 that were mostly incorporated into Wednesday's bill, although Republicans rejected a recommendation to require higher local contributions from property-rich districts.
It was an unusual defeat for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who said opponents failed to grasp that it would have increased funding by $107 million above current levels over seven years, and shifted money to district whose students were poorer or more expensive to educate.
"The fact of the matter is that there are a lot kids across Mississippi who are losers today," Reeves said after the vote. "There are a lot of kids that come from backgrounds and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who were going to be funded at a higher level than they're currently getting funded."
But even at full funding, the new formula would have spent $157 million less than the current formula legally mandates next year. They said Republicans are seeking a new formula to evade criticism for not meeting the targets set by the adequate education program, which has only been fully funded twice since it was completely implemented.
As aides for Reeves prowled the Senate floor trying to persuade reluctant Republicans, Sen. Hob Bryan, who helped write the current formula, made a procedural motion that would have killed the plan. Bryan took to the microphone to argue that funding projections were faulty, the plan hadn't been considering adequately, and even if the projections were to be believed, the plan would have cut funding to 33 districts with declining enrollment.
"Do you think a quarter of the districts in this state are getting too much money?" the Amory Democrat asked, shortly before senators approved his motion to send the bill back to committee. The deadline has passed for committees to pass such legislation, and Bryan's motion can't be re-voted on the Senate floor, meaning the plan could only be revived this year if two-thirds of lawmakers voted to suspend the rules.
House Speaker Philip had become the top advocate of the change. He shepherded the plan through the House in January on a 66-54 vote in January. The Clinton Republican, in a statement, said he was "disappointed" by Thursday's vote.
"They let the politics of public education get in the way of our students," Gunn said. "We can argue about the dollar amount all day long, but no one can refute that this was a better way to fund education."