Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Gov. Haley Barbour has said that the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula will likely receive full funding from the Legislature now that the state superintendent of education has released a revised calculation dropping $34 million off the August estimate.
"When March comes, and we do the budget, I fully expect us to have enough money and to arrange the money so we can make sure there is $124 million (in extra money for the roughly $2 billion) MAEP program, that it's funded at 100 percent," Barbour told the Associated Press.
Barbour's statement is a step away from his earlier position, when the early August MAEP estimate from the state suggested the formula would require almost $160 million in new money over last year's figures.
Legislators devised the MAEP formula in the '90s to help the state balance inadequate funding of school districts, because rural districts often lack the tax base to adequately fund public schools. Barbour nevertheless called the formula "artificial" at a Nov. 2 press conference touting his state budget proposal, and said he would not adhere to it. The House geared up rapidly for a fight soon after Barbour's "artificial" statement, signaling its desire to fully fund the formula, which has not been fully funded since 2003.
Barbour's legislative mouthpiece, the Senate, balked at full funding in a pre-session budget talk, saying the formula estimate was premature. Legislators require the Department of Education to produce a figure in August, but certain data required to run the formula, such as average daily attendance, is not available until mid-December.
Just as familiar battle lines were being drawn between the Senate and House, the final figure became available and state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds derailed the impending fight this week by releasing the updated figures.
Bounds did not return calls for comment, but House Education Chairman Cecil brown, D-Jackson, says that he wasn't surprised the figure changed.
"I've been talking with the state (education) department every day, and I was well aware that the number was a moving target. It changes every year," Brown said. "Normally, it changes in the first week of January, but they knew we were going to bring the bill out early so we've been pushing them to come up with some numbers. It's varied by tens of millions before, but normally it goes up, not down."
The state selects random districts to be included in the calculation of base student cost. Coastal districts have a per-student expenditure that's higher than other districts, Brown said, but many of those districts had their revenue slashed by Hurricane Katrina. The federal government stepped in to replace the lost revenue on the cost, so coastal areas were not included in the calculation.
"What they ended up doing was tossing out all the coast counties from the calculation, and when you do that you lower the base student cost," Brown said.
Some public school advocates feared that the lower estimate was an attempt to placate Barbour, who likely would have vetoed any attempt to fully fund the earlier formula.
Nancy Loome, executive director of legislative watchdog group The Parents' Campaign—a frequent critic of Barbour and legislators who refuse to fully fund MAEP—said she does not worry that Bounds and other education officials dropped the estimates to an artificial level to accommodate the governor.
"I don't think Bounds and Barbour have been talking off the camera," said Loome, whose efforts have invigorated public awareness of who does and does not choose to fully fund MAEP in the Legislature. "We knew there would be some kind of change and have every confidence that the Department of Education is being honest. When that formula is run, it gives you a hard number, not an arbitrary or subjective number. Once you have the schools selected, you look at those Level 3 schools, what their costs were for the previous year, and you get those average attendance numbers, and you run the formula. It's not just a number that's pulled out of the air. The schools they choose are audited by the state to make sure that the costs reflect the real cost. It's the estimate that's arbitrary."
Brown said he was pleased at Barbour's change of heart.
"I was surprised Barbour came around. I'm happy he did, and I look forward to working with him. I hope he's sincere about what he says, because we know the money's there," Brown said.
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, says the $34 million change in the roughly $2 billion MAEP formula was far too small to be the reason for Barbour to change his mind, and said he suspected Barbour had been looking for an excuse to support full funding.
"The Mississippi Economic Council has been traveling the state with groups supporting full funding of the formula. …I can guarantee you that a substantial number of the Republican Party now supports the formula. Barbour was getting so far out of line with a majority of Mississippians that he changed his mind when this chance came up," Bryan said.
Brown added that the House will pass the MAEP bill out early, even though Barbour would prefer the bill in March.