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Miss. education funding plan gains momentum

An election-year plan to fully fund Mississippi’s school budget formula is inching closer to becoming reality after unanimously passing the Senate on Tuesday.

The House and Senate now have passed slightly different versions of the same bill, and the two chambers will have to iron out a final plan before they can send anything to Gov. Haley Barbour, who says he expects to sign it into law.

An education advocate says she wants the final draft to include extra money to help low-income students in kindergarten through third grade.

The version of the bill that passed the House last month had extra money for “at-risk” children in younger grades; the Senate version took the extra money out.

State law defines “at-risk” youngsters as those eligible for free or reduced lunch.

“Most of the children in our schools are considered at risk of failure. We know that is the primary reason that Mississippi lags all other states in student achievement. And we’re only going to be able to improve our student achievement when we address the needs of these at-risk students,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents Campaign, an organization formed to lobby for school funding.

Lawmakers are dealing with a budget for the year that starts July 1. For the first time in four years, they’re on track to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

“I’m just so proud we have an election every four years because that’s when we give some attention to education,” said Sen. Ezell Lee, D-Picayune.

MAEP is a complicated formula designed to ensure that each school district receives enough money to meet midlevel accreditation standards. It was put into state law in 1997 and phased in over several years.

The formula has been fully funded only once before, during the last state election year of 2003. Barbour and most of the 174 lawmakers are seeking new four-year terms this year.

Barbour has said he expects to sign a bill fully funding MAEP this year.

Several students from the Mississippi School for the Arts in Brookhaven traveled to the Capitol on Tuesday for their annual meet-and-greet day with state lawmakers. Juniors Antoinette Powell of Lexington and Ray Gustavos of Hazlehurst said while they don’t keep up with details of the legislative process, they hope schools will get the money needed to run properly.

“If we don’t get the education we need, there’s no future,” said Powell, 17.

The Senate version of the bill included provisions to cover increases in educators’ health insurance and retirement costs and a plan for dyslexia screening. Those details were not in the House plan.

During the debate Tuesday, Sen. Alice Harden, D-Jackson, unsuccessfully tried to persuade her colleagues to take $9.5 million of supplemental money from fast-growing school districts. She wanted the money divided among school districts to help “at-risk” children in younger grades. Her plan was killed on a voice vote, so individual lawmakers’ preferences were not recorded.

Legislators have until the end of March to finish work on the overall $5 billion state budget for coming fiscal year. More than $2 billion is being proposed for elementary and secondary education. The current plan would put about $210 million more into public schools for the coming year.

The bill is House Bill 238.