Miss. Lawmakers Poised To Pass Overhaul of Aid Formula

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Mississippi lawmakers are on the verge of passing legislation that would dramatically alter how the state pays for public education.

The bill, known as the "Adequate Education Program," is moving quickly through the legislature this month. It is designed to reduce the funding disparities between relatively wealthy and poor school districts and to provide all public schools with more money.

Support for the plan is widespread. The Senate voted 39-10 last month to phase in the equalization plan. Early this month, the House voted 100-16 for its own version of the bill.

House and Senate leaders are smoothing out their differences and hope to have a bill on Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice's desk before the session ends April 7.

Gov. Fordice, back in office after a near-fatal automobile accident in November, has yet to comment on the particulars of the legislation. But at a press conference last month, he offered broad support for revamping the school funding formula and called the disparities between the state's well-to-do and poor districts "a very serious problem."

"Certain school districts have more money available to them than others," he said. "I'm a proponent of evening out those differences and inequities."

Historic Moment

Bill Graves, the dean of the college of education at Mississippi State University in Starkville, called the plan historic.

Mississippi's education system typically ranks among the lowest in the nation in both school spending and student achievement. But if the state adopts the funding overhaul, it would be tackling voluntarily an issue that other states usually have confronted only when court orders have forced them to.

Since 1971, school finance systems have been ruled unconstitutional at the highest court level in 17 states, according to a recent report by Augenblick & Myers, a Denver-based consulting firm.

"Mississippi has come to the point where it doesn't want to be embarrassed by a court order," Mr. Graves said. "The legislature is taking a positive, proactive approach to improve schools."

'A Good Bill'

State Sen. Grey Ferris, the Democratic chairman of the Senate education committee, said Mississippi currently is not providing an adequate minimum level of education funding for its schoolchildren.

That is especially true for students attending schools in impoverished regions with little property wealth to bolster the state's share of education aid, he said.

Districts with the lowest tax bases, he added, typically have the lowest-performing students.

"This is a good bill we need to implement," Sen. Ferris said. "It will go a long way toward providing adequate resources for our state."

The plan would set a standard per-student cost of $2,664 for an adequate education and would distribute education dollars based on student enrollment.

The measure would guarantee that all 153 districts received at least a 4 percent increase in state funding beyond the level of aid for the 1996-97 school year.

No Tax Hike Needed

Observers say the bill is enjoying such widespread support, in part, because it does not propose a tax increase. Instead, the program would be financed through a portion of the projected growth in state tax collections.

The $117 million bill passed by the House would be phased in over six years, starting with the 1998-99 school year.

The $180 million proposal approved by the Senate would be phased in over six years, starting next fall.

The Senate bill would distribute more money than the House version does to districts with the highest proportion of children who qualify for free- or reduced-priced school lunches.

More than half of the state's 504,000 public school students qualify for the federally subsidized school lunches; such eligibility is a common indicator of child poverty.

"This is the single most important piece of legislation in the state in 15 years," said Kay Walling, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Association of Educators, the state's largest teachers' union.

In 1982 then-Gov. William Winter, a Democrat, won adoption of one of the nation's first comprehensive school reform measures, bringing unprecedented money and attention to public schools.

"We're pleased as punch," Ms. Walling said of the current initiative. "This is the first time in a long time that education has been the top priority of the legislature."

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