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Charlie Mitchell: Riddle over 'fully funding' public schools not yet solved

 

Charlie Mitchell

 

OXFORD -- The late state Sen. Grey Ferris, an author the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, had a pat answer whenever he heard someone say that generous funding of Mississippi's public schools wouldn't fix what's broken. 

 

"How do we know?" Ferris would say. "We've never tried." 

 

It was an irony that both Kirk Fordice and Grey Ferris called Vicksburg home. 

 

Fordice, who died in 2004, was a Reagan conservative, a Memphis-born Republican contractor who had never run for anything before he ran for governor in 1991. He went on to serve two terms preaching smaller, tight-fisted government. 

 

Ferris, who died in 2008, was old Mississippi. Democrat. A prep school grad whose college and law degrees from Tulane were shelved because he preferred life as gentleman farmer. He, too, had never run for anything before being elected president of his home county's first consolidated school board. Afterward, the same voters who voted for Fordice elected Ferris to two terms in the Senate, the second of which he served as chairman of the Education Committee. He was rising in prominence and ran for lieutenant governor in 1999, but then lost and bowed out of public sight. 

 

Fordice was no "career politician." Ferris was no "career politician." That's about all they had in common. Both often said they wanted to dive into public service, get people to accept their philosophies and priorities and then get out and get on with their lives. 

 

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program, of which Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, was another key progenitor, was, at its core, a defense mechanism. The United States of America was suing states left and right on the belief that funding for public schools was not properly apportioned. Passing the act in 1997 -- nearly 20 years ago -- kept the federal lawyers sitting on their briefs. If nothing else, it saved the state millions in legal fees. 

 

MAEP sets forth a formula to determine how much each district needs to provide basic K-12 services. The formula is not secret. It's on the Internet. It is pretty complicated. The problem is that lawmakers, pleading poverty and other priorities, have only allocated enough money to "fully fund" the formula two years out of the past 17 -- and did not fully fund it for the school year now starting. 

 

Before painting all lawmakers with the Ebenezer Scrooge brush, it must be remembered that while state income was pretty buoyant in the 1990s, there was a decline in the economy starting in 2001, an event called Katrina in 2005 and a near collapse of national markets in 2008. State revenue, in real dollars, fell, and there was no way lawmakers could pay the state's other basic bills and increase real dollars for public schools. 

 

MAEP is back in the news now for two reasons. 

 

One is a grassroots effort, actually started several months ago, to pass a constitutional amendment requiring lawmakers to meet the formula's demands. 

 

The other is a group of circuit-riding lawyers who are meeting with school boards and K-12 leaders encouraging them to sue the state demanding that the Legislature obey the law it wrote and enacted. 

 

It is interesting that one of the attorneys riding the circuit is former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who was lieutenant governor when MAEP passed and was vetoed by Fordice. It was Musgrove who guided the Senate override. So, far, though, reports are that not many school boards are eager to sue the state for a share of the shortfall, estimated at $1.5 billion over the past four years. 

 

The Associated Press reports that some districts don't like the fact that the attorneys would take the first $2.5 million of any $10 million in "back payments" from the state (and other fees afterward). But the main sentiment appears to be that school districts aren't keen on to biting the hand that feeds them. 

 

Also opposing the lawsuits is the group pushing for the constitutional amendment. The amendment approach is a noble idea, but it must be pointed out that Mississippi lawmakers also ignore the Mississippi Constitution almost as frequently as they ignore their own statutes. Even if an amendment goes on the books, it guarantees nothing. 

 

Anyway, time marches on. The riddle of how to fund and how much to fund K-12 schools is a contentious issue every year. There will be more players with different angles in the next cycle. A plan that makes everybody happy remains elusive. 

 

 

 

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