Miss. Approves Hike in Education Spending for New Year
At a time when many states are pondering cuts to their education budgets, Mississippi's governor signed off last week on a major increase in school funding for the coming fiscal year.
Working in what appears to be record time—the new budget was proposed, passed, and signed into law all in about four weeks—legislators approved $236 million in two education spending bills, including $142 million for K-12 schools. The new measure restores two years of education budget cuts and provides funding for every part of the state's school improvement program for the first time ever.
Gov. Ronnie Musgrove quickly signed the bills into law on Feb. 5—less than a month after he pressed lawmakers to raise school spending in his State of the State Address.
"It's a historic day," said Andy Mullins, a university administrator who is a key player in Mississippi education policy circles.
Lawmakers had never before placed school funding as their first priority during a legislative session. But pressure from Gov. Musgrove and a coalition of education groups persuaded them to raise education spending, which in fiscal 2004 will make up 62 percent of the state budget. The percentage has been as low as 57 percent in recent years.
The increase will help a majority of Mississippi school districts, many of them poor and rural, avoid another year of stagnant spending at a time when new state and federal accountability rules are taking hold. Educators have complained they have few extra resources to make the improvements required by law.
Based on the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula, which takes student poverty into account, districts will receive more money to spend largely as they wish. For instance, the 7,200-student Tupelo school system will see an extra $2.1 million in state funding in the fiscal year that begins in July, while the tiny North Bolivar schools in the Mississippi Delta will receive an additional $347,000.
The measure also provides a 6 percent teacher-pay raise—the third installment in Mr. Musgrove's five-year plan to raise pay in Mississippi to meet the Southeast average of about $41,000. More than half of the $142 million for precollegiate schools in the budget will go toward the raises.
While the relationships between some legislators and the governor have appeared strained in recent years, Mr. Musgrove held lengthy talks with lawmakers and education groups to urge the bills' passage.
"There was hardly a person in this Capitol that didn't realize the importance of doing it, if we were able to do it," said Judy Rhodes, the director of educational accountability for the Mississippi Department of Education.
Ms. Rhodes, who works closely with state leaders on the education budget each year, called the new spending package "the highlight of my career" so far.
The Driving Force
The legislation was a political victory for Gov. Musgrove, a Democrat who likely will face an election challenge this year from former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour. It also may help members of the legislature, all of whom face elections in November.
The scene in Jackson at last week's bill signing was very different from the way the budget unfolded last year, when Mr. Musgrove had to order a special session to seek a teacher-pay raise.
Neither of Mr. Musgrove's parents graduated from high school, and the governor is motivated by his desire for his own two children to find good colleges and careers without having to leave Mississippi's borders, spokeswoman Lee Ann Mayo said.
"He wants to provide the same opportunities in Mississippi for them just like any other parent would," said Ms. Mayo, speaking on behalf of the governor. "People are recognizing we have to make our schools good and accountable to have the jobs [we need]."
But state leaders, who likely avoided a school finance lawsuit by passing the increases, will face the complex challenge of sustaining the new level of education spending next year.
Lawmakers used some one-time dollars to pay for the new spending bills, including money left over from state fees and from a pool of money held in sales-tax reserves.
"If the economy doesn't improve, then they may be faced with raising taxes" or making "massive cuts," said Mr. Mullins, the special assistant to the chancellor of the University of Mississippi and a longtime education advocate in the state.
Lawmakers' new direction even was interpreted by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger's Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist last week. Marshall Ramsey depicted a locomotive marked "Legislature" pushing a caboose marked "Education," and drew two bystanders remarking, "Now, that's a first."
Vol. 22, Issue 22, Page 21