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MAEP Rewrite: A Conversation Worth...

MAEP Rewrite: A Conversation Worth Having

By: Rebekah Staples - March 11, 2023

Rebekah Staples

Rushed efforts to achieve short-term political wins usually don’t produce long-term positive results.

Curious things are afoot at the Mississippi State Capitol.  In an unusual joint meeting, at 5:25 pm Monday the Senate Education and Appropriations Committees met to discuss proposed changes and funding for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), the formula used to determine how much money public schools receive to educate children.  

Less than 24 hours later with remarkably no debate, senators unanimously approved formula changes and voted to increase recurring funding by $181 million.

Picture it:  Every Republican and Democrat senator voted to change the formula known as MAEP – which also happens to be the state’s largest budget line-item at $2.3 billion – and increase taxpayer spending after a collective 37 minutes of public explanation.  No questions asked.

I am sympathetic to senators who were asked to consider politically charged legislation in an election year. That would be a tough predicament for most of us.

Even so, I was stunned by the speed and underwhelmed by the changes.  While I strongly believe lawmakers may act as they wish, so long as they have the votes, my own view is that modifying MAEP should be done openly, with spirited debate, and much public input. Mississippians deserve the chance to participate in a real conversation about one of the most important laws we have on the books.

Because changing MAEP is a tall order, I think it unwise to propose fine-tuning the program without addressing its major provisions.  Nancy Loome, head of the Mississippi Parents’ Campaign, observed in a Mississippi Today article: “Importantly, the Senate plan leaves intact the formula for the base student cost, which is the primary driver of public school funding.”

She’s exactly right. Meaningful changes to the MAEP would not ignore the formula’s principal cost-driver. 

Admittedly, I am not an unbiased observer.  I’ve worked on MAEP issues since my time on Gov. Haley Barbour’s staff (way back in the good ole days).  More recently, I was a part of a joint legislative effort led by Speaker Philip Gunn and then-Lt. Governor Tate Reeves that began in 2016 to evaluate MAEP and recommend changes for improvement. 

While those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, the process included public meetings and legislative hearings, a special email to which citizens could submit questions and comments, press conferences, and other public outreach efforts.  An outside consultant was hired in 2016 to develop a set of recommendations, and legislation was introduced in 2018 based on that publicly available report.  Those are the types of efforts one might reasonably expect when looking to change a multi-billion dollar program. 

The conversation about improving MAEP is one worth having.  The formula was developed before a computer was in every classroom, before smart phones or smart screens or Zoom or the universal adoption of new technologies.  It’s not unreasonable to think policymakers should evaluate whether this system still meets the needs of 21st century students.

More important than the technical details of the MAEP are the overarching principles guiding distribution of funds: What are our educational goals as a state, and what kind of funding formula moves us in that direction?

To answer this, several questions come to mind.

First, the formula is designed so that, in theory, each school district can provide at least a “C” level education.  That alone is majorly problematic.  Don’t our children deserve a system that’s aspirational, not just “adequate?”

Second, MAEP relies on past spending patterns in its calculations.  The more a district spends, the more money it may receive in the future.  Do we really want a system that rewards spending over results? 

Third, our program is a hybrid system in which individual student needs and resources (staffing, services, programs, etc.) are both considered.  Based on data from the Education Commission of the States, we are one of just five states with such a model, as most have moved away from resource-based allocations to student-centered models.  Shouldn’t our focus in public education be students, not staff?

Fourth, MAEP ignores the costs of teaching certain children.  The base student cost calculation does not provide special weights (think: more money) to support educating students with special needs, English language learners, gifted students, those living in rural areas, and so on.  If a marksman wanted accuracy, he wouldn’t use a shotgun.  Why not move toward targeted investments to help the children who need it most?

I also wonder whether lawmakers have considered requiring increased transparency of education expenditures, including MAEP dollars, or considered formula incentives for high-performing districts to encourage local control and innovation. 

While no one can predict the future, I read with great interest a quote from House Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White.  He told SuperTalk Mississippi that “changing a formula that’s been around for over 25 years and spending almost $200 million on anything in the state budget is troublesome here at the end of the session.” 

Gov. Tate Reeves also urged caution regarding the “last minute change.”  Speaking of MAEP questions, Gov. Reeves offered one: “Instead of funneling more money to the District offices – where our kids won’t see it – why not another teacher pay raise?” 

In my opinion, MAEP needs adjustment, which very well could – and perhaps should – include higher funding.  But rushed efforts to achieve short-term political wins usually don’t produce long-term positive results.  I urge caution and curiosity among lawmakers as they evaluate next steps.

About the Author(s)
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Rebekah Staples

A native of Laurel, Mississippi, Rebekah has worked in the communications and public policy fields for over a decade and currently works as president of her own consulting firm, Free State Strategies. Rebekah previously served as Gov. Haley Barbour’s policy director on issues including budget, finance, workforce and economic development, pension reform, and government efficiency. Most recently, she has built on this experience to serve as a senior advisor to Lt. Governor Tate Reeves, assisting him with passage of major policy priorities and management of legislative committees. Rebekah graduated summa cum laude from Mississippi College and has a Master of Business Administration from Vanderbilt University. Rebekah is a Fellow of the second class of the Civil Society Fellowship, a Partnership of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and The Aspen Institute, and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.