Should the state provide additional educational funding for students living in poverty?
Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation. As a result, we have the greatest educational challenges. More than 60% of all Mississippi students in public schools fall within the federal government’s poverty guidelines and qualify for the free school lunch program. For example, a child living in a family of four with an annual income of $26,000 or less qualifies for the free lunch program. In Mississippi, more than 290,000 children meet the guidelines.
Research shows that poverty has long been a major predictor in how students perform in school. Students who live in poverty are at greater disadvantage of achieving, have more learning obstacles to overcome, are more likely to drop out of school, and require more intensive educational services. However, there is no doubt that all children can learn and deserve every opportunity to fulfill their potential.
Last year, I appointed a House Education Subcommittee to examine this issue of providing necessary funds to ensure children living in poverty are provided every opportunity to be successful in school. The Subcommittee reviewed the most recent national research and also conducted a hearing for our superintendents to discuss how they are addressing these needs. Currently, our schools are providing some degree of additional services necessary to help these “at-risk” children succeed by offering after-school tutoring, more one-on-one time with teachers and additional instructional materials to students living in poverty.
Education Trust, a well-respected national education research organization, concluded in its “Funding Gaps 2006” report that it costs substantially more to educate children growing up in poverty, pointing out that they “need more instructional time and especially well-trained teachers.” The report determined a state should contribute a minimum of 40% more for each student growing up poverty than for a student who does not live in poverty. This 40% adjustment includes both state and federal funding. In addition, the study committee appointed by the Legislature to study the K-12 funding formula made the same recommendation to the Legislature in 2006.
Currently, Mississippi’s funding formula for the MS Adequate Education Program (MAEP) provides $67 million for educating at-risk students. Mississippi also receives an additional $184 million in federal dollars to serve poverty-level students. These combined state and federal funds total an additional 18.75% in funding for at-risk kids, less than half of the 40% recommended by the Education Trust.
It appears the legislature will fully fund Mississippi Adequate Education Program during this session for the first time in four years. This is an important step forward for our state. However, we cannot afford to continue to neglect the most impoverished students in our state. The House of Representatives has proposed providing an additional $13 million for children in kindergarten through third grade who live in poverty. By focusing on the early grades and holding school districts accountable for ensuring effective use of these additional funds, we can have a terrific positive impact with these dollars. While we won’t reach the target recommended by the Education Trust, it is an important initiative and a start in the right direction to ensure that our poorest students are afforded the opportunity to succeed. We have a responsibility to address this issue, not just because it will pay dividends in the next 10 to 20 years when these children enter the workforce, but also because it is the right thing to do.
Former Mississippi Governor William Winter often said, “The road out of the poorhouse runs by the schoolhouse.” This additional funding will ensure that the children in our poorest households are given a spot on that road to success.