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Miss. budget writers argue over funding for ‘at risk’ students

It’s kind of like fighting over a single paperback book in a sprawling library.

Mississippi lawmakers are in the final days of writing a $5 billion state budget for the year that starts July 1.

Elementary and secondary education will take up more than $2 billion. Some House members working on the school budget say they’re willing to walk away with no deal unless senators agree to put $13 million more into helping poor students who are classified as “at risk.” The state already put more than $250 million into the “at risk” formula.

“We’re not going to take a bill to the floor that does not have additional money for ‘at risk’ kids,” House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said Thursday.

Generally speaking, “at risk” children are those who qualify for free lunches under federal standards. That’s a child from a three-person family with an annual income of $21,580, according to the 2006 Federal Register.

Experts say educating poor children can cost more because many of them start school behind peers who have been exposed to more reading programs at an early age.

Mississippi, with a population of 2.9 million, has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. Brown said 290,000 school-age children in the state are considered “at risk.” Of that number, he said about 99,800 are in kindergarten through third grade — the grades where Brown and other House budget writers want to focus the proposed $13 million.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg, said those pushing for the $13 million have motives other than helping the schools.

“This is not about helping the children, folks. It’s about politics,” Chaney told reporters. “It’s about using children for political ends.”

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, in a statement Thursday, agreed with Chaney.

“Ever since I’ve been Governor, fully funding MAEP has been the Holy Grail of education. Now that we are fully funding MAEP, these House Democrats are pretending there’s a new Holy Grail, which clearly shows that their argument is all about politics,” he said.

Lawmakers have a Saturday night deadline to file final versions of budget bills.

The state’s basic school budget formula is called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. It’s designed to provide enough money for each school district to meet midlevel accreditation standards.

MAEP was put into state law in 1997 and was phased in over several years. It has been fully funded only one time — in the last state election year of 2001.

It’s election year again, and lawmakers and Barbour agreed several weeks ago, in concept but not on paper, that MAEP will be fully funded in the budget that’s now being negotiated. That consensus came only after the state Board of Education met in December and shaved millions of dollars off the estimate of what was needed to be considered full funding. Mistakes had been made, officials said, in calculating costs because some federal Hurricane Katrina money had been used in the calculations when it should not have been.

Among other things, the budget for the upcoming year will include about $18 million for fast-growing districts such as DeSoto County — areas that generally vote Republican.

Rep. David Myers, D-McComb, said the additional $13 million for “at risk” students would help every district in the state.

Chaney said Senate negotiators will agree to the $13 million only if there’s a requirement for school districts to report in detail how the money is spent.

Brown said that offer is on the table: “We’ve offered all the accountability anybody would want.”

In theory, Mississippi puts 5 percent additional money into a local district’s budget for each “at risk” child. Brown said in reality, districts haven’t been seeing any additional money because MAEP has been underfunded.

As for Chaney’s assertion that those seeking money for the poor children are playing politics, Brown responded: “All this wouldn’t be political if they’d just do what they ought to do.”

The bill is House Bill 238.