Ending Inequitable Funding

“…most of the schools serving our poorest students, especially students of color, have been consistently and deliberately underfunded….”

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Holy Bible, Matthew 6:21)

We’ve all heard political leaders say how important our children and their education are to the future of our society. We’ve also heard many complain that too much money is being wasted on public schools, and that the problems in education cannot be corrected by throwing more money at them. The dirty underside of that argument is that most of the schools serving our poorest students, especially students of color, have been consistently and deliberately underfunded from the start. These schools are then penalized for “failing” to meet the needs of students.

That’s why I’m encouraged by a long-overdue battle now underway over how public schools are funded in the state of Mississippi that I believe will have larger implications within the state and possibly across the nation.

The specifics of the Mississippi controversy reveal much about where our state policymakers hearts really are when it comes to “giving every child a quality public education”—a favorite election stump-speech line.  In 1997, the Mississippi legislature developed and passed a funding formula that would provide the minimum funds needed for each local school district to accomplish its obligations according to state standards and laws (notice this is a state and locally determined formula, not one forced on us from outside). However, the formula, known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) has only been fully funded by the legislature two years of its existence (both were election years). Over the past six years, MAEP has been underfunded by $1.3 billion, and for the current fiscal year, state lawmakers have already decided to shortchange it by another $257 million. Meanwhile, state tax revenues have grown dramatically, especially over the past three years.

The Parents’ Campaign (a social action group of public school parents in Mississippi) correctly charges: “The Legislature appropriated $257 million less for our children’s schools than is required by state law. That means that our public schools are operating on budgets that are $257 million short of what is required to run a ‘C’ level school [reference to the new grading system for public school accountability].”

Thankfully, a movement is growing across the state to make fairly and fully funding education a requirement under the state constitution. A statewide alliance, known as Better Schools, Better Jobs is working to gather enough signatures to put such an initiative before voters in November.  The movement has support from parents, mayors, local businesses, and teachers.

What’s significant about this effort is that it will make financial support of quality public education part of the state’s constitution:

If passed by the voters of Mississippi, the initiative will protect each child’s fundamental right to educational opportunity through the 12th grade by amending Section 201 of the Mississippi Constitution to require that the state must provide and the Legislature must fund an adequate and efficient system of free public schools. (http://www.betterms.org/ballot-initiative/).

Even more important is the cross-section of support, led by a coalition of parents, teachers, and other community leaders, who are working for an end to this crippling hypocrisy. This could be a model for similar initiatives in other places, and an opportunity for Mississippi to lead (for a change) the nation in moving towards true quality public education.

  • marsharatzel

    Funding is tough in my state too

    Dear Renee,

    This is a huge issue in my state, Kansas.  The state legislature has not fully funded Kansas education for decades. The legislature sends about $3838 per pupil when, it should be sending $4492.  In order to do that, we’d need an extra $492 million in the education budget….which will never happen. We struggle with such a divide between rural and urban population needs…..

    Political policy has been to spend as little as possible.  

    The only hopeful thing is that almost 20 years ago the funding formula was redesigned to equalize money spent by districts.  Since Kansas is sucha property tax dependent school funding kind of state, the courts ruled that $$$ had to be spread equally between every Kansas student.  So it is collected in high wealth counties and redistributed throughout the state.  Every student gets the same base spending.  Then the loading factors come into the picture and messed everything up, fueling more court cases and more rulings that the legislature is supposed to deal with.

    Then politics came in to influence that $$$.  On top of the base, there are loading factors added to a district’s per pupil if there any factors like these—-high rates of growth, high poverty, high ELL # of students, SPED # of students and so forth.  It attempts to allocated more of the property tax pool of monies to students that have needs for higher funding levels.  And the legislature only allows the local districts from adding additional tax levies to the districts where they could raise more property tax for their local schools.

    The idea is sound but there need to be many tweaks to account for all sorts of things.  I think the rural areas have faired much better.  I think the bigger districts have really struggled.  I think the urban districts are having a hard time keeping up with the cost of living differentials.  Politics have shutoff any tweaks being made…gridlock not only afflicts Washington DC but also Topeka KS.

    But it is a more equitable division of the state’s property tax $$$.  Many believe that all this could be relieved if the legislature would only fully fund the formula….giving everyone more $$ to use.  I don’t think that will happen as our state heads towards a financial crisis.


  • ReneeMoore

    What Does This Tell Us?

    Thanks for that perspective from another state.

    So what does the deliberate underfunding of schools tell us about our true priorities?  If educating all our children costs more than we are willing to pay, what’s the alternative? One argument, that is contributing to the gridlock, is that those who can afford to educate their children should be able to get the best quality education, and the rest should get the cheapest, most minimal training (notice they say training, not education) the state is beneficent enough to provide.

    Is it fair to accuse schools and teachers of failing, when we have been forced to work below what we have agreed is minimum needs for so long? Reminds me of the Biblical story of Pharoah telling the Hebrew slaves to make the required daily ration of bricks, but they would no longer be provided with the straw necessary to do it; they had to go out and gather what they could find, and make the bricks. Or as we used to sing, “Let my people go!”  That’s one reason I’m not necessarily a fan of education being totally run (or funded) at the local or state level. Either education is a right for all children in the U.S., or it’s not.

    There have been more practical suggestions made about how to fund education in the modern world, disconnecting it from property taxes, for example, and shifting government priorities. It is not right to pit one human need against another (“Should we help the elderly or fund the schools?”) 

    What about other states out there? Anybody got a more progressive system, or idea? How is education funded in other countries?