Public education needs to be first for funding

Published 4:12 pm Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Public education in Mississippi has been getting slighted so long that leaders this year are hoping for “level funding” when newly elected state lawmakers approve a budget for next year. But for the sake of our children’s future, that may not be enough.

“We are rapidly approaching a school funding crisis in Mississippi,” said Tom Burnham, state superintendent of education told The Clarion-Ledger recently.

Burnham said that funding in recent years for K-12 harms districts with lower tax bases disproportionately, leaving the lower-income students to suffer most.

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In higher education, the state’s dollars also have not kept pace with the growth at its two-year colleges, which enroll more than 80,000 students statewide, said Eric Clark, executive director of the state Board for Community and Junior Colleges.

Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said he believes the university system has done about as good as it can do with lower funding. “We really have done more with less, but at some point, less is less,” he said.

For all the talk of Mississippi “throwing dollars at education,” Mississippi is either near bottom or at bottom in virtually every measure — including funding.

Without early childhood education, for example, and Mississippi is the only Southern state without state-funded pre-K, many kids are simply unprepared to start school.

Our dropout rate, also among the worst in the United States, and our high school and university graduation rates, also abysmal, virtually ensure that the “jobs and economic development” mantra most state politicians got elected in November to achieve is wishful thinking without a big change in attitudes and, especially, funding.

A commitment to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program — which is the state’s share of basic, not “frills,” funding which is required by law — has more often been ignored than obeyed. Not since 2003 has the Legislature funded education from kindergarten to universities first, as the state’s top priority.

Education isn’t something that is funded once, then forgotten. It’s a continuing need that should continue to be the state’s budget priority, just as it is the state’s only way to make “jobs and economic development” a realistic goal.

Meeting that goal starts today by fully funding education. It won’t go away. And it will become a bona fide crisis if state leaders continue to give it short shrift.