Big plans for Miss. education in tight economy

Published 1:25 am Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Parents’ Campaign executive director Nancy Loome knows the nation’s economic downturn will affect lawmakers’ spending decisions on K-12 education programs, but she doesn’t want to see the ax fall on the Mississippi Adequate Education program.

MAEP is a complex budget formula designed to ensure all school districts receive enough state money to meet midlevel accreditation standards. It was put into state law in 1997 and phased in over several years. It’s only been fully funded three times, including the current fiscal year.

“Last year, we weren’t terribly concerned because we knew we were going to have plenty of new money. But this year, we’re watching to see that it’s not going to be threatened in any way,” said Loome, who heads a nonprofit education advocacy group that boasts thousands of members across the state.

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The state Department of Education has estimated that full funding of MAEP in the fiscal year that begins July 1 will cost an extra $61 million. The Education Department also wants lawmakers to restore $38 million in teacher supply and building maintenance funds that had been diverted to help pay for MAEP this year.

The agency’s overall budget request is $184 million more than it received in the current fiscal year that began July 1.

In addition to MAEP, the money will go toward a 3 percent teacher pay raise and continued work on an ambitious plan to redesign the state’s high school system, among other programs.

The 2009 Legislature convenes on Jan. 6, and Gov. Haley Barbour and key lawmakers have said it will be a tight budget year, but they’ve also made early commitments to MAEP.

“We’ve got a very strong commitment from a lot of different people to the fund adequate education formula, but once we do that, I’m not sure what’s going to be left to fund other education proposals,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo.

Barbour recently said revenue reductions for the state likely “will go through the rest of this fiscal year and into the next fiscal year.”

Advocates are hoping education proposals with a relatively small price tag will fare well in the upcoming session. Among those are the accountability components of “The Children First Act of 2009,” an initiative that resulted from the legislatively created Task Force on Underperforming Schools.

The panel spent this past year touring numerous school districts, both successful and underperforming, to deliver recommendations to lawmakers on how to improve schools that struggle academically.

State Education Superintendent Hank Bounds said a key factor in failing schools is leadership. Bounds is asking lawmakers to give his agency authority to remove school boards that oversee underperforming schools.

Lawmakers approved legislation last session that allowed school superintendents to be fired if their districts perform poorly two consecutive years. That law is awaiting U.S. Justice Department approval. The federal agency has to clear any laws related to elections, and in Mississippi some superintendents are elected.

“I think it’s going to help us move off the bottom in so many categories,” Bounds said of the task force’s proposals. “Schools exist to serve boys and girls, period.”

Sam Bounds, president of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents, said MAEP funding is the group’s priority, but he also supports the accountability component.

“I believe anytime that a team of leaders are not working directly together it affects the whole outcome. We think the bill that has the same accountability for school boards and superintendents will absolutely increase the productivity,” said Bounds, who’s not related to Hank Bounds.

The task force’s other recommendations included:

— Reporting information on student achievement and finances on a district’s Web site or in a local newspaper.

— Spending more money on teacher recruitment.

— State auditing of districts every four years.

— Creating a Mississippi Recovery School District to oversee all troubled districts that have been taken over by the state.

“We’re very pleased that the state Board of Education wants the authority to go in and help schools before they to these really desperate levels,” Loome said. “It’s going to cost a little money for the department to have the resources to go in and help other schools. It doesn’t cost any money to hold schools boards accountable for the level of education they give children.”