• 52°

Barbour calls Miss. Adequate Education Program ‘artificial formula’

Gov. Haley Barbour outlined his education agenda to state business leaders Thursday, saying he wants to spend millions more on schools but he won’t be bound by the “artificial formula” of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

Speaking to about 1,000 people at an event hosted by the Mississippi Economic Council, Barbour said fully funding the $2 billion-plus MAEP next year would cost $158 million more than is being spent on the program this year. The overall state budget for the coming year is projected to be about $4.9 billion.

Barbour said he will propose a spending increase of more than $158 million for elementary and secondary education for the fiscal year that starts next July 1, with some of the money going to a 3 percent pay raise for teachers.

“But for me, I am not in favor of taking all that money and cramming it into just a formula. I think there are things that are more important than funding an artificial formula,” Barbour said.

He was one of several elected officials who spoke Thursday at MEC’s annual “Hobnob,” a social event held in a giant white climate-controlled tent in the parking lot of the state Agriculture and Forestry Museum.

Public school funding could shape up as one of the biggest political fights of the election-year legislative session that starts in January.

Several lawmakers, including some of the top budget writers, say they want to fully fund MAEP, a complicated formula that’s designed to ensure that every school district has enough money to meet midlevel accreditation standards.

An official state revenue estimate adopted by Barbour and legislative budget writers earlier this week shows the state should have $250 million more to spend in the coming fiscal year than in the current one.

House Speaker Billy McCoy — who helped adopt the revenue estimate — told the MEC crowd Thursday that the House priority in the coming session will be “education, education, education.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, the funds are there today. God has blessed us, and the House of Representatives intends to do everything possible to fully fund the Adequate Education Program,” said McCoy, D-Rienzi.

His remarks received a smattering of applause.

Barbour, a Republican who took office in January 2004, said he’ll propose spending an additional $65 million on MAEP next year. In March, Barbour signed a new law saying that MAEP funding would be phased in over four years. He noted Thursday that legislators had endorsed the phase-in.

MAEP was put into state law in 1997 and was originally designed to be phased in over about six years. It has been fully funded only once, during the last statewide election year of 2003.

Barbour’s predecessor as governor, Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, was one of the chief architects of MAEP while serving in the state Senate and as lieutenant governor.

Barbour prompted some laughter Thursday when he told the business group: “The good news about our budget is that the revenue estimating committee says that our revenue for the next fiscal year is going to go up $250 million. The bad news is that the state Department of Education has asked for the first 360 (million) of the 250 million.”