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2014 October 28 - 05:15 am

Miss. Funding Fight Could Sow Education Conflict

K-12, Higher Education Systems Competing Against Each Other for Limited Appropriations


JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — It’s not often that the heads of Mississippi’s public university and community college systems are reduced to stammering. But a little air went out of the room during legislative budget hearings last week when Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves asked what both systems would do if lawmakers cut $312 million out of their budgets to find money to fully fund the state K-12 school funding formula.

Eric Clark said it would be “devastating” if lawmakers gave the 15 colleges’ appropriation of $250 million to public schools.

Following Clark, Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds knew the question was coming, but couldn’t do any better.

“I can’t even answer that,” when asked what would happen if lawmakers pulled the money out of the $750 million the universities get from the state.

The ever-simmering conflict over how much the Legislature should spend on education has turned up to full boil in recent months. A group of 21 school districts represented by former Gov.

Ronnie Musgrove has sued to collect the amounts they say they’ve been underfunded since 2010, while the Better Schools, Better Jobs group has collected signatures to write a guarantee of adequate funding into the state constitution.

Reeves opposes both those efforts, saying that it’s wrong for courts to tie the hands of lawmakers. Reeves also contends that Mississippi doesn’t have enough money to cover the shortfall in the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, saying lawmakers would have few options to come up with the money. Proponents of full funding dispute that, noting that lawmakers deposited $409 million in the state’s rainy day fund at the end of the 2014 budget year. They say Reeves is trying to make schools and colleges fight among themselves.

“For our elected officials to tell the public that we have to choose between a quality system of K-12 education and a quality system of higher education is just a cop-out,” said Nancy Loome, executive director of the Parents’ Campaign, which lobbies for more money for K-12 schools.

Bounds, a former state superintendent, also said after his hearing that he thought full K-12 funding versus higher education was too limited a way to frame things.

“If something happened where you took $300 million out of circulation, I hope that we would look at all alternatives,” Bounds said.

It’s far too early to tell how much money the state will have in 2016. After two months of the 2015 budget, tax collections were running $15 million ahead of plan. However, lawmakers will need more than $100 million additional in 2016 to cover the second year of teacher pay raises.

Lawmakers did find some support in their efforts to stave off funding demands. Attorney General Jim Hood told them that he believed Mississippi courts would rule that the 2007 guarantee of MAEP full funding didn’t bind future legislatures.

“Certainly I think education funding should be adequate, but I don’t ever let that get in the way of my duty to vigorously defend the state,” Hood said.

But if Musgrove is successful, there’s another legal funding mandate out there that gets much less attention. Clark reminded lawmakers last week that in 2007 they also wrote into law a pledge to fund community colleges at the “midpoint” between K-12 per-student funding and university perstudent funding. That would take another $140 million next year. Community colleges are only asking for $70 million, and Clark acknowledged he didn’t even expect to get that much.

Overshadowed by the continuing political turmoil over K-12 funding, maybe Clark needs to hire Musgrove, too.

Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy

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