Senator who helped write MAEP skeptical of planned rewrite

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A lawmaker who helped write Mississippi's current education funding formula is questioning whether a private firm hired to rewrite it can accomplish the task in a short period of time.

"When we set up the formula, we worked on it for years," Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, told reporters Tuesday at the Capitol.

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program was enacted in 1997 over the veto of Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice. Democrats then controlled both chambers of the Legislature, but several Republicans joined Democrats in voting to put the new formula into law.

Mississippi, at the time, was trying to avoid the kind of equity-funding lawsuits that had been filed in many other states.

MAEP is supposed to give each school district enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. It is also designed to help poorer school districts without taking local tax money away from wealthier ones, Bryan said.

The law was phased in over five years. However, it has been fully funded only two years and the continuous shortfalls have made lawmakers the target of sharp criticism from public education advocates.

Local districts are required to set a minimum level of property tax, though each district could choose to set a higher level. The state calculates a base student cost and multiplies that by the average daily attendance for each district. Poorer districts generally receive more state money, per student, to help make up for the weak local tax base.

Costs for transportation, special education, gifted programs, vocational programs and alternative schools are calculated separately from the MAEP formula, and districts receive state money for those. Fast-growing districts are supposed to receive supplements.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, both Republicans, announced last week that House and Senate committees had awarded a no-bid contract to a New Jersey-based firm, EdBuild, to examine MAEP and recommend changes that could be considered during the 2017 legislative session, which runs from early January to early April.

Reeves and Gunn said the formula is outdated partly because it was written before laptops and other technological tools were commonly used in classrooms. They also said their goal is to reduce spending on administration.

Bryan said each school district already has the flexibility under MAEP to reduce administrative costs.

"There's nothing in the formula itself that says any particular dollar has to be spent on any particular program," he said.

Bryan said Tuesday that he questions whether Republican leaders are trying to change the education funding formula as a way to ultimately direct public money to private schools.

EdBuild was formed in 2014. Its founder and CEO, Rebecca Sibilia, is a former executive for StudentsFirst, a nonprofit group that promotes charter schools. Charters receive public money and are operated by private, nonprofit groups. Mississippi's three current charter schools are all in Jackson, but Republican legislative leaders have expressed interest in expansion.


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