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Cost of funding education v. cost of not funding education

Editor;

During my first year as State Superintendent of Education, we have faced numerous challenges. Certainly, it will long be remembered as the “Year of Katrina.” It was, hopefully, a once-in-a-career challenge. However, there is another challenge that seems to plague the education community year after year: funding.

We all know that Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation. Therefore, we have the largest number of students who are considered “at-risk.” This term has evolved because students who grow up in economically disadvantaged homes are often at risk of failing in school. They usually have parents and grandparents who failed in school and, because of this, have become trapped in a cycle of generation after generation facing a lifetime of low wages and difficult circumstances.

These children are not less able to learn. However, they often require additional services because they haven’t spent their early years in a print-rich environment and haven’t had the tools and experiences that help develop young minds.

When a kindergarten teacher greets her students on the first day, she knows that her classroom is filled with students with different skill levels. Some have been read to from the time they were babies; others have never been read to at all. Some have made many trips to the local library; others don’t know what a library is. Employing only one teaching strategy to reach all of these children would not work—some would be bored and others would not be able to keep up.

I like to compare it to shipbuilding. Before Northrop Grumman can begin building ships, they must have the raw materials—steel. If they receive the steel that is already refined, they can send it straight to the assembly line. If the steel is not refined, they must put additional effort and resources into the steel to get it ready for the assembly line. When it gets to the assembly line, it is just as strong as the first shipment of steel. If Northrop Grumman tries to cut corners in preparing the steel, the final product will suffer.

The same is true in education. If we try to cut corners in providing additional services that some of our students need, the final product will suffer. The 5 percent at-risk supplement to MAEP that districts currently receive does not give them the resources necessary to fully meet the needs of at-risk students. The Mississippi Board of Education recommends that the Legislature increase the at-risk component to 10 percent so that districts can more adequately provide the additional instructional materials, one-on-one instructional time and tutoring services necessary to help at-risk students become successful students. The percentage recommended nationally for the at-risk component is 40 percent, so we need to increase our percentage each year until we meet at least this minimum recommendation.

We must make a commitment to provide the resources necessary for our teachers to reach all of our students. The Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) was designed to do this. However, it has been fully funded only once. In addition, the sales tax diversion into the Education Enhancement Funds for classroom supplies has been partially absorbed into the Mississippi Adequate Education Program since 2003. Further, for the past five years, the $20 million for the Public School Building Fund has been used to fund MAEP, resulting in a loss of $100 million to school districts for facility needs. Because of this, in addition to underfunding MAEP, districts have not had the additional needed resources necessary for buildings and instructional support.

Some of our schools are in terrible condition and the districts cannot afford the substantial costs for renovations and repairs. When a student goes to school each day in these conditions, it sends a message to them that their community does not value education enough to provide facilities that inspire learning. These schools are also a deterrent to new businesses that consider locating in an area. The message these buildings send to potential businesses is: “This community does not value education, so therefore the potential workforce must not be properly prepared to perform our jobs.”

These businesses then decide to locate in another community in another state and Mississippi’s economic development suffers. Fewer jobs are available to our citizens. Fewer taxes for our state and communities are collected, both from the business and its employees.

The Institutions of Higher Learning recently commissioned a study that was conducted by the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Their findings were summarized in the publication, “Mississippi’s Mandate: Why the Investment in Education Pays Off in Mississippi.” The report finds that “The public economic costs of an insufficient level of educational attainment have at least two components. The first component is the decreased tax revenue due to stunted economic growth, and the second component is the increased public expenditure due to increased reliance on public social programs.”

To put it in terms of dollars and cents, Mississippi’s total personal income would increase by $3.2 billion and its tax revenues would increase by $1.1 billion if the same percentage of our minority populations held a bachelor’s degree or higher as the percentage of white Mississippians who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Currently, 24 percent of white Mississippians have a college degree, while only 11 percent of minorities in our state do.

Mississippi also spends approximately $540 million annually on social programs. Increasing the level of educational achievement of our children today can reduce this amount dramatically. As noted in “Mississippi’s Mandate,” reducing the rate of teenage pregnancies could reduce spending on the associated health care and social programs by $125 million per year.

When looking at the impact that education has on economic development, tax revenues, and the need for governmental assistance, I am left with one question. What costs more: underfunding our schools or appropriately funding education?

Dr. Hank M. Bounds

State Superintendent of Education