Mississippi Marchers Pressure Lawmakers on K-12 Aid
Pro-education Rally Delivers Signatures Favoring More Money
The five-mile walks began across Mississippi two weeks ago, in the towns of Oxford, Indianola, and Ocean Springs.
People wore red and carried signs and banners, hoping to stir a political groundswell in favor of more money for schools in the state.
Then last week, about 1,200 people who had gathered earlier for the walks converged at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson, clad in the same bright red. They presented state lawmakers and the governor with more than 137,000 signatures on Jan. 11, asking them to spend more on education this year.
“It’s the best use of Mississippi’s money,” Tupelo businessman Jack Reed Sr. said of education finance in his state. The Republican, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1987, and former Gov. William F. Winter, a Democrat, joined to serve as the co-chairmen of the marches.
But the calls for more school funding from educators and some Mississippi parents who formed the Coalition for Children and Public Education may be falling on deaf ears—or empty pockets.
Gov. Haley Barbour, a first-term Republican, and the Democratic-controlled legislature contend that few extra dollars are available to do what Mr. Reed, Mr. Winter, and their supporters would like.
The governor has proposed a slight increase in K-12 funding of about $57 million, to a total of $2.1 billion, for fiscal 2006. A similar increase last year actually forced cuts in many school districts.
Mr. Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, does back an 8 percent teacher-pay raise. He also has proposed a measure called the Upgrade Education Reform Act of 2005, which would add bonuses for teachers whose students show test-score gains, allow more local control for highly rated school districts, and provide more training for child-care workers.
“You know, even in the toughest budget times, we have to try to improve education,” the governor said in his State of the State Address on Jan. 11, possibly setting up the state’s biggest legislative battle of the year. “These common-sense reforms are realistic and affordable.”
Key Education Law
Nancy Loome, a parent from the outskirts of Jackson who helped organize the marches, hopes state leaders heard the message last week that the public wants more money put into schools.
The Clinton, Miss., mother of twin daughters in the 3rd grade, Ms. Loome said the issue has made her into an activist. “This time last year, I did not even know who my representatives were” in the legislature, she said.
Ms. Loome described how marchers met in the state fairgrounds parking lot last week, then walked a quarter-mile to the Capitol for a rally at which Mr. Reed, Mr. Winter, and state legislators spoke.
The protesters demanded “full funding” for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which lawmakers passed in 1997. The program was designed to provide equitable funding for public schools.
“We hope that the support they saw from the parents today will give them the courage” to provide more money for the program, Ms. Loome said just after the rally, referring to state legislators.
Mr. Winter, a pioneer among the celebrated crop of “education governors” from the 1980s, said lawmakers need to spend about $156 million more than Gov. Barbour proposed for next year to finance the “adequate education” program in full. “If we violate that formula, we’re asking for real trouble,” he said in an interview.
Mississippi will be inviting a school finance lawsuit if the legislature decides to shortchange the formula this year, Mr. Winter said.
Mr. Reed noted recent test-score gains, even as schools cut budgets. “I think it indicates pretty damned good efficiency, if you want to know the truth.”
Last year, lawmakers approved $38 million in new K-12 funds—but cut money for classroom supplies by 80 percent for every teacher. The tiny budget increase of just under 1 percent led to cuts in many districts.
The 5,400-student Ocean Springs school district slashed $800,000 from its current budget, said district spokeswoman Mary Louise Mason. Higher costs for employee benefits and the lack of sufficient state aid were to blame, she said.
This year, the outlook is even worse. Ocean Springs expects to cut at least $1.7 million from its projected $29 million budget for fiscal 2006, based on Gov. Barbour’s budget proposal, Ms. Mason said.
Gov. Barbour wants to raise general state aid for K-12 schools by $99 million, including the teacher-pay raise. But he would cut $29 million from items such as building maintenance and school administration, and reduce spending on vocational education and the state’s schools for the blind and the deaf.
The plan would restore the $500 for each teacher to buy classroom supplies, aides to the governor said.
And for the first time, the state would dedicate $1 million to help districts pay $1,000 bonuses for teachers who mentor less experienced colleagues.
State education officials—and those people clad in red last week at the Capitol—want the state to do more. The education department wants the legislature to spend $2.3 billion for K-12 education in the coming year—about $194 million more than Gov. Barbour proposes.
Many lawmakers and the governor have pledged not to raise taxes. But former Gov. Winter suggested that a small income-tax increase for higher-income Mississippians is one way to raise money.
“Without finding additional revenue, the money is just not there,” he said.
Vol. 24, Issue 19, Page 8