(Guest column by Nancy Loome, published in Mississippi newspapers including The Meridian Star, Mississippi Business Journal, and Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal)
What happens when elected officials undervalue public education? Mississippians – especially our children – are left at a competitive disadvantage. Communities wither and once-thriving businesses disappear. Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann recently shared the results of a survey showing that an educated workforce is by far the top priority of Mississippi business leaders, particularly of small business owners.
Yet Mississippi continues to slip further behind our neighboring states in the race to a brighter future. When it comes to school spending, Arkansas, second only to Mississippi in lowest median income in the nation, out-invests us by nearly $1,400 per student. Mississippi, failing year after year to comply with our own school funding law, is significantly out-spent, per student, by Alabama, Louisiana, and Tennessee, as well – all primary competitors in economic development.
More startling is the fact that, if our state statute, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), were fully funded, Mississippi’s public schools would still fall far short of our neighbor states, trailing them by an average of $600 per student. Some of our lawmakers think even that level of funding is too much to ask. State leaders proposing to rewrite Mississippi’s public school funding law argue that the current formula calls for an unreasonable investment in our K-12 system. Is the MAEP formula unreasonable? Or is the problem our state leaders’ unwillingness to make the investment needed to level the playing field on which our children compete with their peers, even their peers in the states most like ours?
The new school funding law proposed earlier this year by legislative leaders, when fully phased in, would have reduced the school funding called for in state law by an estimated $290-million annually – a giant step backward in a race we already are losing badly. It would increase significantly the multi-million-dollar-per-year advantage Arkansas’s children have when competing with ours. Those lost funds would mean fewer teachers and larger classes; fewer interventionists, reading coaches, counselors, and dyslexia therapists; inferior technology and reduced access to first-class career and technical training; older, less-safe buses and more failing HVAC units and leaky roofs – the list goes on and on.
Public school advocates believe any new school funding formula should move our children – our workforce of the future – closer to their peers, not further away. Indications are that Mississippi voters and business leaders agree.
Fully funding the MAEP would help to close the gap, leaving us $600 per student short of what our neighbors spend. Isn’t our future worth at least that?
Nancy Loome is executive director of The Parents’ Campaign. She and her husband Jim have three children, two graduates of and a current student in the Clinton Public School District.
Sources: National Center for Education Statistics; Y’all Business Survey 2017, Mississippi Secretary of State