Mississippi’s Republican leadership have begun plans to overhaul their state’s 20 year-old education formula and replace it with a weighted student formula. Currently, the state uses the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), a funding formula established in 1997, to allot resources to its schools. MAEP uses factors such as average daily attendance, base student costs, and local property tax contributions to fund students. The formula also adds funding for programs such as gifted, alternative, and special education categorically rather than on a per-student basis after its initial calculation. MAEP was intended to ensure that the state provided enough extra funding to poorer districts with smaller property tax bases to provide “adequate” funding levels, but it still enables wealthier districts to fund their students at significantly higher per-pupil amounts. Categorical, rather than per-student funding on several programs, along with MAEP’s issues with unequal property tax contributions artificially cause students with similar needs to receive different amounts of resources. For instance, Mississippi’s Oxford School District spends roughly $10,000 per pupil, while the same student in Rankin County School District would receive only about $8,500. Multiply this roughly $1,500 disparity by the 20,000 students in Ranklin County and you get an overall funding disparity of nearly $30 million.
In light of these funding gulfs, Mississippi Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn recently hired the school finance reform non-profit EdBuild to evaluate the state’s funding formula. The group, which spoke at the Reason Foundation’s Future of Education Finance Summit this summer, is known for its work helping overhaul several state’s funding formulas to better ensure that resources follow students directly, rather than programs. According to Speaker Gunn, EdBuild could issue their report on the state’s formula within the month. The report will inform a series of public hearings, with the final goal of introducing a bill to change the state formula for the start of the next legislative session in January 2017.
Switching to a system of student-based budgeting would be a step forward for equity and transparency in Mississippi’s education system. Scrapping categorical funding for student-based budgeting simplifies an unnecessarily complex funding formula, reducing an administrative burden which has expanded its costs 8 percent in recent years, diverting funds from classroom instruction. Letting education resources follow students wherever they attend and adding extra “weights” to pupils’ funding amounts based on their individual needs can ensure that kids get the resources they need no matter where they live. Districts that serve their students well will be rewarded by parents eager to enroll their students, which will bring in additional revenue. Districts that do not will be similarly held accountable for failure. Mississippi’s school districts should take reform a step further by imitating the proposed state-level reforms in their own funding formulas.
School finance reform can’t come any quicker for Mississippi. The state ranked second-to-last in the nation on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card” in Education, earning a “D-” for its overall achievement. Fixing the Magnolia State’s education funding and introducing some much-needed market incentives can be a much-needed first step to turning its educational fortunes around.