It is January 2017, and the assault on public school education in Mississippi continues. The Republican push to privatize public education is at full throttle, and once again funding for public schools will most likely fall far below the amount required by state law. In fact, the Joint Legislative Budget recommendation for the 2017-18 school year is 180.9 million dollars short of the amount required to fully fund the MAEP (Mississippi Adequate Education Program) formula. However, if state leaders get their way, shortchanging MAEP may not be an issue much longer. In the fall of 2016, they hired an out of state group (EdBuild) to study the formula and make recommendations for changes. After the Initiative 42 battle over MAEP funding in 2015, most public school educators had been expecting such a move to rewrite or eliminate the formula. However, the clandestine approach state leaders took to hire EdBuild as well as their efforts to block the public from gaining access to knowledge about the scope of the consulting firm’s work, truly troubled public school educators and their supporters.
When the public discovered, state leaders had hired EdBuild to study and recommend changes to the MAEP formula, they asked to see the EdBuild contract. However, they were denied access to the contract until the state attorney general issued an opinion forcing the state to allow public access. Why would state leaders deny the public information they were entitled to receive? Why the secrecy? Also, why did state leaders deliberately duck the public hearing to discuss the contract? They initiated the hiring, so they should have been available to answer questions about the hiring. Why wouldn’t they address the concerns of citizens face to face in the hearing? Furthermore, why was the hearing cut short after 75 minutes? Why were only a select few allowed to speak? Why were people from the general public who had made arrangements to get off work to attend the meeting and address EdBuild officials unable to comment? What were the motives behind the actions of state leaders? What motivated them to be secretive and evasive?
The motive behind their actions was simple! MAEP has been a pain in the side of state leaders and legislators for years, and they want it to go away. Doing away with MAEP for a new formula or rewriting the old formula would reduce challenges to education funding as well as give Republican legislators added leverage in their quest to push forward with parent choice and privatization of public schools. Rewriting the formula to include charter schools and vouchers as well as provide assistance to private schools and homeschools would seal the deal for state support of parent choice and privatization of public schools and open the door to ultimately dismantling public schools.
For state leaders in Jackson, dismantling public school education is the end game. The secrecy they created around the hiring of EdBuild, along with their reluctance to be open and honestly address the concerns of the public regarding that hire, speaks volumes about their intent. EdBuild’s January 2017 report only added coals to the fire. In the report, the firm made several recommendations that, if adopted, could have dire consequences for public education in Mississippi.
First, EdBuild recommended Mississippi adopt a new student base cost. Under that recommendation, the student base cost would not include an annual adjustment to account for inflation. Without an adjustment for inflation, funding that may have been adequate initially would, over time, become grossly inadequate to support public schools. Under the recommendation, increases in student costs would only be made at the discretion of the state legislature. Based on the Mississippi Legislature’s history for funding public education, the initial amount set for the student base cost would most likely remain the same indefinitely or more precisely forever.
In another recommendation, the consulting firm recommended the state decrease the state’s responsibility for funding public education by placing more of the burden on the local communities. I imagine there was a great deal of back slapping and high fives in Republican chambers at the state capitol when they heard that recommendation. When adopted, such a recommendation would significantly increase the amount of local taxes citizens pay in their communities to support local schools. Under this recommendation, the burden to fund public school education would be greatly reduced at the state level and transferred to the local communities. Locally, citizens would see significant increases in the amounts they pay for car tags, property taxes, and other personal taxes such as sales taxes. The legislature would have less of a role in appropriating public education funds, but it is a sure bet they would maintain or even increase their authority to dictate how much local money individual school districts would have to funnel to charter schools, vouchers, and private schools/academies.
The EdBuild report also stated that [In Mississippi] “Ratios of students to guidance counselors, teachers, and librarians are all significantly lower than the national average.” Therefore, EdBuild recommended the ratio of student to staff/faculty should be monitored closely and maintained at the national average of 16:1. This recommendation would open the door to reduce the number of guidance counselors, teachers, and school librarians. Based on the data reported by EdBuild, librarian positions would most likely be the first cut from public schools.
These are just a few of the EdBuild recommendations and their consequences if adopted. There are other recommendations such as changing the definition of “poverty” and how it is calculated. Presently, socioeconomic status is determined by “free and reduced lunches,” but under the EdBuild recommendation such status would be determined at least partially by the United States Census. Since EdBuild has yet to run numbers to compare the impact of the new definition versus the old definition on individual school districts, it is unclear how such a change may impact schools. However, one thing that is glaringly clear about this recommendation as well as the other recommendations is that it will not necessarily place more money into public school classrooms unless maybe the classroom conforms to the new definition of “poverty.” That is strange since legislators say the primary reason a revision or new public education funding formula is needed is to put more money into ALL classrooms. They claim public school classrooms are suffering under the MAEP formula. Of course, anyone, not drinking the Kool-Aid, knows classrooms are suffering because they are annually underfunded by the Mississippi Legislature.
State leaders contend the challenge to adequately fund public education will become a thing of the past once the old MAEP formula is rewritten or a new funding law is written to take its place. However, why should the citizens of Mississippi harbor any hope or expectations that legislators will follow a new or revised funding law, especially since funding will most likely remain at the Legislature’s discretion? That is where EdBuild’s recommendations come into play. A truth about the recommendations, that no one can dispute, is that if adopted, the recommendations will make it easier for the Legislature to continue to fund public education at nine figure deficits. Under a revised or new formula, it will be much easier to hide or justify inadequate education funding. At least, that is what the Republican leadership in Jackson is hoping to achieve by hiring EdBuild to recommend changes to the MAEP formula.
If EdBuild’s recommendations are adopted and implemented, within a few short years, no one will remember MAEP and its promise of adequate funding for public schools. Nine figure deficits in public education will become the norm since funding will be tied to a cost factor that is perpetually locked. As a result, the public will continue to wrongly associate struggling public schools with incompetence and mismanagement when in truth their struggles will more likely be the result of inadequate funding.
The end game is the desire for parent choice and privatization will escalate among the public, and the Republican leadership in Jackson will have won. The major problem is thousands of poor and middle class children will be stranded within the crumbling infrastructure of the public school system unable to meet the selective demands of charter and private schools and without the means to take advantage of vouchers. The end game for Mississippi is a cheap labor force, a status quo of the “haves” and the “have nots,” and an everlasting home at the bottom of prosperity.
©Jack Linton, January 24, 2017