By Davis McCool
Mississippi Capitol Press Corps
OXFORD – As the 2018 legislative session convenes in Jackson, lawmakers know education funding is sure to draw much debate, and Oxford’s two legislators are gearing up their respective parties for a fight over a multitude of education policy issues.
Democratic Representative Jay Hughes, who was elected behind his platform “It ALL starts with education!” and Republican Senator Gray Tollison, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, although binded by a city, are separated by their policy approach.
Both recognize the challenges of the Mississippi’s public education system and are well aware of the funding shortfalls that have hindered educational progress for two decades. They also know, however, that the future of public education funding hangs in the balance, and the two vastly differ on the best approach to educating Mississippi’s youth.
The Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the state’s education funding formula since 1997, has been fully funded only twice in its existence, and Hughes doesn’t expect the status quo of underfunding MAEP to change any time soon.
“Zero chance, with the leadership we have,” Hughes said. “This will continue until we change who leads the state in 2019, and I hope to be a part of that.”
Tollison and the Republicans see the education pitfalls as a formula problem, not a funding problem, however, and are looking to reshape the state’s entire funding formula.
“It’s been 22 years, and at the time, it was cutting edge, and the point of it was to try to bring equity to our school districts, but the MAEP has run its course,” Tollison said. “My top priority this session is pushing a new funding formula.”
Hughes and the Democrats, on the other hand, argue it’s not yet time to see the MAEP out the door, as the state hasn’t seen the formula live up to its potential due to funding constraints but once.
“The fact is that we have something in place that’s not been used, and they’re saying it’s broken, and that’s the Mississippi Adequate Education Program,” Hughes said. “We’ve funded it twice, and one of them was a clawback. So the only time we’ve ever actually funded it, the scores improved the next year. I don’t see how you can declare it a failure when you’ve never taken it. That’s like looking at a child and giving him an F on the test, when he never actually took it.”
In 2016, after years of education funding deficits, the Republican-controlled legislature hired EdBuild, an independent education consulting firm, to rework the state’s funding formula and draft a proposal for an entirely different education funding formula.
The proposal, which was recently introduced – with a few tweaks – as House Bill 957, lays out that the state carries too much burden for education funding. It would look to shift the formula to a base student cost of $4,800 per student, with added weights for certain characteristics of a student body, such as gifted students, English language learners, special education, and high school students.
For example, a school with 1,000 students would receive $4.8 million in funding per year from the state with the added benefits of aforementioned characteristics, a proposal that everyone can get behind, at least according to Republican leadership.
“EdBuild, we believe is a better way to fund education,” House Speaker Phillip Gunn said. “The MAEP does not work, it has not worked. It passed in 1997, and for seven years, the Democrats didn’t fund it. Since then, the Republicans have been in control, and they haven’t funded it either. It’s not a party thing, it is just a system that doesn’t work.”
Hughes, though, has other ideas for the legislature.
“Let’s fund it for three years and see what happens,” he said. “If it’s a failure, then we move on to something else, but I’m not in favor of EdBuild, because it represents the opposite of democracy and transparency, and the fact that we haven’t had a single public hearing on that, or seen the bill in the past fourteen months is terrible,” Hughes said.
An education funding overhaul is not the Republicans’ only goal in reforming education policy for the 2018 session, however, as top lawmakers are pushing the hotly-debated ideas of public charter schools and school choice as alternative ways to traditional schooling in order to improve public education.
“If we tell a student who lives in an F district that we’re not going to fix their school, but that they can’t go anywhere else, that’s wrong,” Gunn said. “So, charter schools are basically saying, ‘Kid, you don’t want to go to school here, go somewhere else.”
Tollison has rallied behind the issue of public charter schools, an idea that he says can open the door for equality in education for all students.
“For parents that don’t have the means to send their kids to private schools, it allows them to have options, just like rich people do,” Tollison said. “In Jackson, you have people that send their kids to Jackson Academy or Jackson Prep, because they don’t think the public schools are good for their kids. Well, if the public schools aren’t good enough for their kids, maybe they’re not good enough for the poor kids that live there. That’s equity.”
With the fourth public charter school set to open in Mississippi this year, another top Republican lawmaker, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, stressed the point of competition as the driving factor in improving traditional public schools in low-performing areas where charter schools have been introduced. Hughes, however, had harsh words for the lieutenant governor and his emphasis on competition with traditional schools.
“Bulls—t,” Hughes said. “I completely and unequivocally reject that, and I would hope that with their level of intelligence, they don’t believe that that would actually help. Public dollars equal public schools.”
Either way, both sides can agree that it’s time for an overhaul in the current state of affairs regarding public education. The fight over education policy for the 2018 session is set to draw much attention from lawmakers, and Oxford’s two legislators are sure to be at the forefront of the debate.
“The legislature needs to make education the single top priority,” Hughes said. “It is the most important thing for the future of Mississippi, and it’s not an expense, it’s an investment.”
Davis McCool, 19, is a University of Mississippi journalism and public policy major, who graduated from Oxford High School. He has pursued writing in many different ways, including at his job with the Ole Miss Athletics Department. McCool serves as a communications specialist within the Athletics Department, specifically for the Ole Miss Baseball Team. He is a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College and active in Greek life through membership with Phi Delta Theta at Ole Miss. He found his niche in journalism at his high school newspaper, The Charger, where he served as editor-in-chief and won the Mississippi Scholastic Press Association’s High School Journalist of the Year Award in 2017. An avid reader and wishful traveler, McCool hopes soon to run with the bulls in Spain’s iconic San Fermin Festival. He can sometimes be found enjoying reruns of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or The Office.