Education chief: Arkansas leads Miss. in spending

Published 1:45 pm Friday, September 26, 2008

Being at or near the bottom in the nation when it comes to education used to be a fight between Arkansas and Mississippi.

Mississippi officials said on Wednesday that their neighboring state is now ahead of them when it comes to making gains on the education front.

“I’m worried that Arkansas is going to leave Mississippi in the dust,” state Board of Education Chairman William Jones told a panel of Mississippi lawmakers. “To catch up, we must double up.”

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Jones appeared with state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds to make a pitch for next year’s budget funding. The budget request for K-12 public education is $184 million more than was received in the current fiscal year that began July 1.

The money will go toward increases in the state’s school funding formula, Mississippi Adequate Education Program; a 3 percent teacher pay raise, and continued work on an ambitious plan to redesign the state’s high school system, among other programs.

Bounds said the estimated base student cost for the state is $4,753 — hundreds of dollars less than what’s spent in neighboring Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas. He told lawmakers to look at Arkansas if they want an example of a state that has taken strides to improve education through investment.

Bounds said Arkansas is ahead of Mississippi in teacher salaries and per pupil spending. Those changes in Arkansas didn’t come about until a lawsuit was filed against the state over its school funding, said Arkansas Department of Education spokeswoman Julie Johnson Thompson.

After the 2002 ruling in the lawsuit, the state revamped its funding formula to take into consideration other factors at school districts, such as poverty or the percentage of non-English speaking students. The base cost Arkansas spends per pupil is $5,789.

Thompson said as Arkansas is putting millions more into the system, officials are demanding more accountability from the districts, including a requirement that high schools teach a set of 38 core courses.

“The state’s tried to make sure that there’s enough money at each school building and school district that children have the same access to a quality education regardless of where they live in the state,” Thompson said. “We are getting good results. We’re seeing our test scores climb on standardized tests and our state benchmarks.”

Another bragging right is last year’s recognition by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who cited Arkansas and Massachusetts as two states to watch for education advancements, Thompson said.

“When Arkansas, the state that stays in the cellar with us, is beating us on statistics, then we have a long way to go,” said state Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, a member of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee that’s been fielding funding requests from agencies for the past two weeks.

Mississippi’s average teacher salary of $40,182 is below the southeastern average of $45,108. Bounds said the salary is one of the reasons the state is short 2,113 teachers. The state recently adopted more rigorous assessment tests that are comparable to the National Assessment of Educational Progress that sets the national standard for states.

“Clearly we have made great progress around teacher pay over the past five or six years, but arguably, now is not the time to backup,” Bounds said.

He said fully funding the MAEP program is estimated to cost the state nearly $61 million more than was budgeted for the current fiscal year. Many lawmakers have said that MAEP has kept Mississippi from being sued over how school districts receive funding.

MAEP was put into state law in 1997 and phased in over several years. It’s meant to ensure all school districts receive enough funding to meet midlevel accreditation standards.

The program hasn’t always been fully funded by lawmakers, but Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said there’s a desire to do it in the upcoming session. However, he cautioned that it’s still early in the budget process. The 2009 Legislature convenes in January.

Bryant said Mississippi’s estimated revenue growth is 2 percent, about $100 million, but agencies have made $1.2 billion in budget requests.

“Let’s be realistic,” he said.