“High Minded” Funding: Are Mississippi’s public schools going up in smoke?

cheechchong

This week Desoto County lit up the national news by planting a petition to legalize marijuana in Mississippi. Some believe in the benefits of taxing its revenue and scaling back the war on drugs. Others fear the unintended consequences of these sweeping measures. I will leave the substance of the debate to others, but one other hot story this week does seem at least somewhat related. And it has to do with the stereotype of the “stoner roommate” typically associated with the legalization movement.

I never lived with a “pothead” in college (although, come to think of it, my buddy Will was kind of strange). I know there are legitimate medical uses for the stuff, and that not every user is a bum. I’m not trying to generalize.  But I’ve seen my share of movies with dumb, spaced-out best buds, and here’s what I’ve learned from Hollywood about sharing your living space with a “lit loser”:

STONER ROOMMATE PROFILE :

1. They are not the most highly motivated people. 

2. They are nowhere to be found when rent is due. 

3. They have terrible memories. 

4. They would rather spend money on short-term fun than long-term goals. 

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Whoa! I think he’s talking about me!

Could it be that a group from current Mississippi education news fits this description? Who has been running from responsibility and cannot be trusted with the cash pile? Who needs constant reminding and prodding from their counterparts in education just to stay honest? Look no further than downtown Jackson, folks. We have our very own Cheeches and Chongs in the state legislature.

The Digs: Where We Are

When you become a teacher in Mississippi, one of the first things you want to do is take a quick look around “the neighborhood” to see what kind of a situation you’re finding yourself in. It’s only natural. You want to know how your living situation compares with the Joneses, at least in terms of comparing with the schools in other states. Are you a high rolling hustler in the hills? Are you a backyard bubba in the ‘burbs? Or are you perhaps in a bit of a bind when it comes to reaching your students?

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I keep gettin’ older; things keep stayin’ the same.

You don’t have to be in Mississippi to hear the word on the streets. Mississippi’s education system is like the college student living in a rented double-wide with a kitchen full of PBR and a healthy stack of fifteen cent ramen noodles.

The Rent: The Cost of Education

So what does it actually cost to stay in our sub-standard education “living situation”? According to the latest data published by the U.S. Census Bureau, Mississippi is 46th in amount of money spent per pupil and 47th in teacher salary dollars per pupil. We don’t do a stellar job of putting our money toward fixing education.

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Hey, I’m the Guv! I’ve got you covered, man.

In 1997, to make sure all the different school districts (wealthy and poor) had a fair shake at educating students and to help Mississippi stop lagging so far behind other states, the State Legislature passed the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). It’s a formula the state Department of Education uses in order to account for factors such as teacher-student ratios, cost of maintenance and operations, and payroll for other important positions like librarians and counselors. In general, it’s designed to let the taxpayers know what the schools of Mississippi need in order to be successful and to allot that funding from the budget. It’s like our ole roommate actually noticed the situation, asked what it would take to get rent paid and maybe even save up some to move to the swanky apartment complex down the street. A man with a plan! What a guy!

 The Roommate: Our Support System

The Government is definitely Public Education’s best friend. At least that’s what they say, so it must be true! They’re also that special kind of roommate that keeps up with all the money. And that would seem like a really good idea, since they came up with the MAEP formula to make sure we got enough money to get everything taken care of.

The problem is, much like a bad roomie on rent day, the Legislature talked really big up until they saw the bill. Then they found other projects they could spend taxpayer money on instead of meeting their constitutional obligations to fund education. And they’ve done it over, and over, and over, and over.  It’s almost like they have a really bad memory. In fact, ever since the MAEP was passed in 1997, Mississippi’s schools have only been fully funded twice.

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We were supposed to pay ALL of MAEP?!?! AGAIN? OOPS!!!

But is it fair to compare Jackson’s consistent failure to fund education to the irresponsibility of a slacker-on-the-substance? Aren’t we a cash-strapped state in the midst of battling poverty? Don’t we have tons of other problems to fix with our money?

Maybe, but our failure at funding public education hasn’t been because we didn’t have the money. This year, Governor Bryant is recommending that the Legislature under-fund MAEP by $284.5 million.  In a “completely unrelated” story, he also recommends increasing state spending by more than $282 million. I wonder where he’s getting the money!

UPDATE: So it turns out it’s actually much worse than that! In the last 6 years, Mississippi has cut $1.3 billion from education, and given about the same amount to Nissan, no strings attached. Our legislature is worse than the roommate who abandons you on rent day – they’re the roommate who spends your cash on new, richer friends, convinced it’s money better spent, that his new friends will be better friends in the long run. But they’re just using him until there’s no more profit in it. And the rent still isn’t paid.

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Funding? For kids? Whose kids? Not MY kids.

Now- Am I saying that the members of Mississippi’s government are stoners, or potheads, or that they abuse illegal drugs in any way? No. Am I suggesting in a roundabout way that I have suspicions of it? Not at all. There may be perfectly sound reasoning behind passing a law that publicly establishes once and for all how much money your schools need and then declining to adequately fund them, year after year. It might also be sensible in some bizarre way to annually thumb your nose at a huge bloc of voting constituents. Maybe their critics are wrong- that they’re not actually tanking public schools on purpose to help their charter school buddies find fresh crises to swoop in and fix. There could some smart, hidden political advantage, or an effective line of thinking that defies intuition and what most people consider decent behavior – I just have no idea what it is!

All I know is this: In Mississippi’s education community, when we see the continued irresponsible behavior of our government, the constant lip service, the chest beating, and the endless excuses, all we can do is scratch our heads, stare back at Jackson in bewilderment, and say, “Dude! Where’s my funding?”


James will return to the public school funding issue on a later date.  To receive his articles direct to your inbox, sign up for “The Weekly Comans” on the side-bar.

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