MAEP funding expected to be quick, complete|[01/10/08]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 10, 2008

Full, prompt funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program is anticipated as the state’s lawmakers wind up their first week of the 2008 session.

“I think we’re in good shape,” state Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said Wednesday afternoon. However, “Education is 65 percent of the budget and you just may have to wait a while,” to get the bill passed, said Flaggs. But “I don’t think it’s an issue.”

Calculations show an additional $11.8 million will be needed in the 2008-09 school year to hit the target level, and legislators along with Gov. Haley Barbour made re-election pledges for full funding.

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Enacted in 1997, the MAEP replaced the previous educational funding formula called minimum program funds. It was a response to states being sued by the federal government due to district-to-district funding inequities. Although the law “guarantees” the money, the full allocations have only been delivered to districts twice, both times in election years.

“The MAEP formula allows more state money to go to those districts that have a low assessed evaluation,” which is a good thing, said Grey Ferris, former state Senate Education Committee chairman. Before serving in the Senate, Ferris oversaw the consolidation of the former Vicksburg city and Warren County School systems 20 years ago.

A formula that accounts for local variations in the tax base is “especially important in areas like the Delta where they have very little revenue,” he said.

The Vicksburg Warren School District’s 2007-2008 budget anticipates about $39.4 million in state funding, $24.9 million in local funding and about $10.5 million in federal dollars. The state money makes up 51 percent of the district’s $75.9 million in expected revenue.

Ferris was the lead author of MAEP and saw it come to fruition before leaving the Legislature in 1999. He said the MAEP prevented Mississippi from lawsuits that other states were facing years ago.

“We were aggressive and we decided to pass the formula ourself to prevent the filing of a federal suit,” said Ferris. If the area’s tax base was weak, “You were stuck” under the old system, said Ferris.

Although talk seems to surface during each legislative session about funding, Ferris said he’s not worried about this session, a belief echoed by VWSD Superintendent James Price.

“Not only is it important to have MAEP funded, but to fund it quickly,” said Price. “That’s critical to us.” In previous years, the Legislature has delayed passing the bill until the close of the session, which makes planning difficult. School districts must have their budgets in place by each July 1.

While Price acknowledged that each district has no control over how and when state funding is passed, they can seek to maximize school attendance, one of the main factors driving allocations. The 9,100-student district receives about $4,459 per student. An increase or decrease of 10 students in average daily attendance, then, is $44,590 — approximately one teacher’s salary.

Price said attendance initiatives in October and November saw about 96 percent of students at school during the monitoring period, a slight increase over last year.

Contrary to popular belief, said Price and Ferris, the MAEP was never meant to be a “lavish” bill to ensure premium education. “The adequate education bill really generates a minimum of support of public education,” Ferris said.

After an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in 1999, Ferris has retired to take care of the cattle on his family’s south Warren County farm, but he keeps a keen interest in education and politics. He said despite all the spending, there’s still room to improve, especially when it comes to early education.

“The one area that we have made almost no progress in is early intervention,” he said. That’s why he said he’s watching and waiting to see if the Legislature will fund a statewide pre-kindergarten program this year, providing the resources for all districts to start teaching children before age 5.

For some kids, “Our problem is by the time they get to kindergarten they’re so far behind they can’t catch up. If we’re ever going to solve the problems in education, we’re going to have to reach children sooner,” said Ferris.

The Quality Education Act of 2008, as proposed by state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds, does not call for public pre-kindergarten. It does contain incentives for certification of education components at private pre-K institutions. It also calls for a 3 percent raise for teachers, costing a total of $48 million.

“It’s always challenging for the Legislature (because) you have such great needs and limited resources and you have to prioritize,” Ferris said, then cited Thomas Jefferson. “He said education is the most important function of the state, and I think that’s the attitude we have to take.”