The money available to help Mississippi’s children get the education they need is not the result of a force of nature beyond our control. It is the result of choices made by our state legislature. These choices have resulted in consistently underfunding public education in Mississippi.
On Monday and Tuesday of this week, lawmakers on the Legislative Budget Committee heard from state agency heads about their needs for the state budget year that begins July 1, 2016. If you attended the hearings or followed them in the news, one thing you heard a lot about is the potential effects on agency budgets if the legislature is “forced” to financially support schools at the level the law requires. You heard that by fully funding schools, other government services may be at risk.
As we consider these conversations, we must all ask ourselves about priorities and the manner in which they are set. Are we as a state willing to make our children the top priority? Or, are we choosing other priorities? Each year the state spends several hundred million dollars on corporate tax breaks. Often decisions to create or reauthorize the tax breaks are made without even knowing how much these tax breaks will cost.
When estimates of tax cuts are available, state agencies are certainly not asked to come up with a list of potential cuts they will have to make to account for the lost revenue. Last year, for example, the Mississippi House of Representatives passed a bill to eliminate the personal income tax at a cost of up to $1.7 billion. Ironically, the intended funding mechanism for the income tax phase out was not based on state agency budget cuts. It was based on the same principles as those outlined in the education funding referendum – Initiative 42 – increased revenue resulting from regular economic growth.
Unfortunately, when it comes to economic growth prospects, Mississippi comes in last among all states in Forbes magazine’s “Best States for Business” rankings. What brings down our score? Not the “Business Costs” category that accounts for taxes. Mississippi ranks better than 32 states in that category. No, the problem lies elsewhere: Mississippi ranks 49th in the “Labor Supply” category and 46th in “Quality of Life” that takes into account such factors as educational attainment and health. Better schools will not only result in a more equipped workforce. In the long term, investments in education have an even broader reach in areas such as, improving health and reducing crime.
To make Mississippi stronger, we need to support our schools at the level required for success. This means, at the very least, appropriating resources for the state’s school funding formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), at the amount the law requires. Increased support for auxiliary education programs beyond the formula, like literacy coaches or grants for preschool programs, is important, but does not replace the need to fully fund the formula which provides the “meat and potatoes” of what schools need, like teacher salaries and textbooks.
So as the alarms of cuts to community colleges and universities, mental health, and other state services are sounded, remember that that the funding decisions made are a function of choices and priorities made by the state legislature, not an inevitable, natural consequence of supporting schools. Rather than making either-or choices, legislators should instead decide to invest in what’s needed most. Let’s choose Mississippi’s children.
Sara Miller is a senior policy analyst with the Hope Policy Institute.
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