Study Initiative 42 and 42A Before Nov. 3rd Election

Initiative 42 and the Legislative Alternative 42A are a ballot initiatives to change Mississippi’s Constitution with respect to public education. The ballot is long and detailed so every voter must study this issue before voting November 3rd. The specific changes to the State Constitution can be studied here.

The anticipated results or consequences vary widely.  Proponents say Initiative 42 will require the Legislature to fully fund MAEP (the State’s funding formula for public schools) and phase it in over a number of years based upon state tax revenues.  Opponents say Initiative 42 will seriously impact the state budget, reduce other state services including public universities and community colleges, and could tie-up all kinds of education issues in the courts.

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Judge changes title of MAEP ballot alternative

In response to a lawsuit that the legislature’s alternative to the Initiative 42 ballot measure was confusing, Hinds county Circuit Court Judge Winston Kidd selected the new title for Initiative 42-A from a list provided by the opponents of 42-A: “Should the Legislature establish and support effective public schools, but not provide a mechanism to enforce that right?”

The new title for 42-A effectively changes the intent of the alternative by stipulating public education as a right (not unlike 42). As summarized by House Democratic Leader Rep. Bobby Moak in support of renaming the alternative, “It was only about the title, because the title is [what] will appear on the ballot when voters go to vote in November.”

The original Initiative 42-A Ballot Title simply asked, “Shall the Legislature be required to provide for the establishment and support of an effective system of free public schools?” The ballot summary for Initiative 42-A remains unchanged: “This constitutional amendment is proposed as a legislative alternative measure to Initiative Measure No. 42 and would require the Legislature to provide, by general law, for the establishment, maintenance and support of an effective system of free public schools.”

The Initiative 42 Ballot Title asks, “Should the State be required to provide for the support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools?” But hidden in the ballot summary which will not be on the ballot, Initiative 42 establishes public education as a fundamental right and grants authority to the chancery courts to determine and enforce adequate funding.

Currently, the state legislature determines how much to fund public schools along with other budget priorities.

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Legislature sends record education budget to Governor

If the bill passed by the House and Senate is signed by Gov. Phil Bryant, Mississippi public education will receive a record $2.52 billion in 2016. Over 4 years, education funding will increase by $285 million.

On February 18th with virtually no debate, the House unanimously passed a bill to increase the Mississippi Adequate Education Program by $109.9 million. Since both chambers’ priorities were very similar, the Senate simply passed House Bill 1536 on March 17th with a 49-2 vote.

Those promoting Initiative 42, a proposed constitution amendment to require fully funding the MAEP formula, remain unsatisfied despite the record amount.

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Mississippi House summary for the week of February 16th

Budget matters consumed the Mississippi House this past week. The February 16th Mississippi House of Representatives Weekly Summary is posted below in its entirety:

This week, members of the House turned their focus toward budget matters, with both the Appropriations and Ways and Means committees very active. The Appropriations committee deals with spending the state’s money and is charged with designing the Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 State Budget, which begins July 1. The Ways and Means Committee focuses on sources of state revenue. This committee crafts bills used as vehicles to fund the government. Early projections suggest the budget for FY2016 will be close to $6 billion.

The Ways and Means Committee passed several bills out of committee and onto the House floor, including:

House Bill 38 (HB38) authorizes the issuance of bonds to provide funds for the Small Municipalities and Limited Population Counties Fund. This allows counties under populations of 30,000 and cities under populations of 10,000 to apply for grants with the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) of up to $250,000 a piece.

House Bill 155 (HB155) increases the historic property income tax credit from $60,000 to $100,000 and extends the time taxpayers may be eligible to receive it through 2030.

House Bill 216 (HB216) freezes the assessed valuation of a person’s home (ages 65 or older or totally disabled) as long as they live in that house and do not increase the value of the home through renovations.

On the House floor Wednesday and Thursday, House members first addressed Special Funds Appropriations bills and then moved to tackle General Funds Appropriations bills. Special Funds are amounts set aside in separate accounts in the State Treasury for specific spending purposes. This money is typically generated from fees and licensing expenses collected by agencies, and also includes federal funds available to agencies. General Funds are state revenues that are not restricted to specific spending purposes. General fund money is, for the most part, collected through taxation of individuals and businesses.

The amounts appropriated to each agency were determined based on agency needs, not what the agency already had in its coffers. The deadline to address these bills is February 25 at midnight.

During the presentation of the first Special Funds bill, an amendment was adopted to authorize a pay raise for employees of state agencies who have not had a pay raise since 2011. This amendment, which was also adopted for each additional appropriation bill, allows agencies to provide the raises, within their authorized budgets, up to five percent. Adoption of this amendment does not increase expenditures from the General Fund, and it will apply to all state agencies, not just those funded through Special Funds.

General Fund budget bills were taken up next. A few agency appropriations are noted:

House Bill 1536 (HB1536), the budget for the Mississippi Department of Education, passed unanimously. Included in the$2.5 billion budget is $106 million more for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). The MAEP money covers the second year of the teacher pay raise and assistant teacher raise, along with about $50 million going toward school districts.

House Bill 1538 (HB1538) provides the Mississippi Library Commission with an additional $1.3 million to go toward improving fiber optics and technology.

House Bill 1541 (HB1541), the budget for the Division of Medicaid: $882.4 million.

House Bill 1530 (HB1530), the budget for the Attorney General: $8.7 million.

House Bill 1555 (HB1555), the budget for the Department of Health: $62.4 million.

House Bill 1556 (HB1556), the budget for the Department of Human Services: $159.2 million.

See all weekly summaries from the Mississippi House of Representatives 2015 Regular Session website.

Education bills approved in the Senate

The Mississippi Senate passed SB 2695, Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act, on Wednesday. The measure is designed to help special needs students by providing a $7,000 voucher, provided on pre-paid debit cards, to seek educational services outside the public school system. If enacted into law, it will be limited to 500 students in the first year. The estimated $3.5 million first year cost would be paid from the state’s general fund and not the Mississippi Adequate Education Program earmarked funds. Funds could only use the funds at Mississippi Department of Education approved vendors.

Gov. Phil Bryant and the National Excellence in Education Foundation praised the passage. However, the Parents Campaign opposes SB 2695 because it does not help all students with disabilities and sees it as a step toward privatization of public schools.

SB 2695 will proceed to the House for consideration where a similar bill, HB 294 sponsored by Carolyn Crawford of Pass Christian, awaits passage.

Senate Bill 2161 was passed yesterday and will establish the Mississippi Commission on College and Career Readiness to recommend new education standards to replace the Common Core States Standards adopted.  Several Tea Party conservatives, namely Senators Chris McDaniel, Melanie Sojourner, and Michael Watson, protested since the Senate refused to add language making the adoption of the commission recommendations mandatory. Those objecting to SB 2161 also fear that the Commission could recommend standards that simply mirror Common Core standards.

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The cost of education in Mississippi

The federal government provides $800 Million of Mississippi’s $3.3 Billion education budget.  The Daily Journal asserts that “Cutting federal school funding [is] not realistic” and then challenges the reader to “Imagine what the impact would be if 25 percent of the money coming into Mississippi’s public schools suddenly disappeared.”

Challenge accepted.

With 492,586 students enrolled in public schools according to the Mississippi Department of Education, the state spends an average of $6,699 per student per year.  For comparison, annual tuition rates for some Gulf Coast private schools were sampled, albeit not scientifically.  The amounts below include tuition, registration, and other mandatory fees that could be identified on the respective institutions’ public websites:

As it turns out, private school cost is less than public school funding.  Are the buses, school lunches, superintendents, school boards, a Board of Education and State Superintendent, and annual fights over teacher pay and MAEP adding value commensurate with cost?  Probably not.  Even though private school teachers are typically paid less than their public school counterparts, private school parents still find “value” in sending their children to them.  Quality education is not so closely linked to teacher pay as the NEA, AFT, Mississippi Legislature, and others would have us believe.  But I digress.

Back to the original challenge:  What would be the impact to Mississippi schools without the federal subsidy?  Answer:  Mississippi would still have enough funding to send each student to a private school.  Less the $800 Million, the amount per student ($5,075 per year) is almost enough to send a student to any private school on the list and more than enough with multi-child or “participating member” discounts offered by every private school.  Yet The Parents’ Campaign and Better Schools, Better Jobs demand more funding to meet the levels prescribed under MAEP as if funding is one of the most critical items for improving  the quality of education.

Mississippi can do better and increased funding is not a panacea.  Washington, DC spends nearly $30,000 per student and is ranked only 0.5% ahead of Mississippi in Education Weeks’ Education Counts report!  In fact, the Cato Institute found that “this spending figure is about triple what the DC voucher program spends per pupil—and the voucher students have a much higher graduation rate and perform as well or better academically.”

Imagine this:  Parents send their children to private schools effectively sacrificing their “entitlement” to $6,699 per student while spending another +/-$5,000 per student to do so.  By “voting with their dollars,” these parents demonstrate the increased value of the private schools they send their children to.  An education voucher system would allow all Mississippians to have that same opportunity, rich or poor.  A means adjusted voucher system could even save the state money while still providing better education value to the most needy students.

While the state can’t be weaned off federal funding overnight, getting the politics, bureaucracy, and overhead of the federal government out of education would be helpful to Mississippi and our country.  Returning education to local control, local oversight, local responsibility and exposing it to competition would be even better.

Being a net taker of federal “welfare” has yet to help Mississippi.  An education system that adds value will.

Imagine that.

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Will ‘Better Schools, Better Jobs’ Amendment help Miss. schools?

“Better Schools, Better Jobs” is seeking a constitutional amendment to require the Mississippi Legislature to fully fund public education according to the MAEP formula.  If 107,000 registered voters sign their petition by April 2015, the initiative will go on the ballot for voters to decide.

Adopted in 1997, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program is a formula that determines total district funding.  Of the $6 Billion state budget, education consumes $2.4 Billion and is receiving an $85 Million dollar increase in 2015.  Fully funding MAEP would require 10-15% more funding.  Per The Parents’ Campaign, that increase would have resulted in $2.54M, $7.67M, and $5.23M more for Hancock, Harrison, and Jackson Counties, respectively.

While fully funding education sounds like a good thing, there are several important considerations:

  1. Local governments are responsible for up to 27% of the MAEP formula.  Local officials can always vote to increase the local contribution to their city and county’s schools. 
  2. If you send your children to private school, fully funding MAEP is equivalent to a tax increase.  While an actual tax increase may not happen, under the proposed amendment more state tax dollars would be directed away from state services you use to a state service (public school) that you don’t.  Education vouchers would change that calculus but the state legislature rejected such an option for just 500 special needs students during the 2014 session.
  3. The Mississippi Brain Drain Commission reports that the state is a net exporter of college graduates.  While MAEP does not fund college and university education, state universities are primarily filled with state students.  Therefore state tax dollars are ultimately subsidizing other states’ economies.  Improving Mississippi’s economy and job opportunities (and thereby the state and local tax base) is a better way to improve school funding.

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