Legislative leaders sneak in vouchers

By HOLLY DEAN,

The 2019 Mississippi Legislative session was certainly exciting, to say the least. There were more than 100 public education bills introduced. One might wonder why public education seems to get so much attention. A productive economy depends on economic development which depends on human capital (i.e. an educated workforce).

As a matter of fact, the Madison County Economic Development Authority recently released an infographic for potential business prospects touting, among other things, Madison County Public Schools’ achievements. According to the U.S. Census and the Mississippi Department of Education, close to 90 percent of Mississippi children attend public school. Public education is our down payment on Mississippi’s future prosperity.

During this session, it was widely recognized that the state’s teacher shortage had to be addressed. According to the Mississippi Department of Education, the number of new teacher licenses has dropped 92 percent since 2007. Mississippi’s teachers are the lowest paid in the country. Teacher salaries in our neighboring states average $6,500 more. This doesn’t bode well for attracting new talent to the teaching profession in our state. Most of the measures designed to help the teacher shortage died. Teacher pay, however, gained traction early and remained at the forefront of legislative issues.

Both chambers introduced various versions of a teacher pay raise. The Senate passed a $1,000 bonus to be implemented over two years at $500 per year. The House was about to follow suit with a $1,000 permanent raise until Rep. Steve Holland (Lee and Monroe counties) proposed an amendment to increase the raise to $4,000 to be phased in over two years at $2,000 per year. A motion to halt that amendment failed by a vote of 55-50. The amended version of SB 2770 ultimately passed the House 112-2. The bill was sent back to the Senate, which invited conference, instead of concurring.

Conference weekend traditionally occurs at the end of the legislative session. Three conferees from the House and three from the Senate are named to conference committees and charged with negotiating the final versions of bills. However, this year was different. A number of bills were in conference with no designated conferees. Conferees for the teacher pay raise bill were announced on the same day the conference report (final bill version) was filed.

The House position on SB 2770 – a $4,000 pay raise - didn’t make it. Instead, the conference report called for a $1,500 pay raise with no phase-in. The conference report passed the Senate 45-2 and the House 96-20. While this is much needed and appreciated, it doesn’t do anything remarkable for our marketability to future teachers; it would take at least $4,000 just to move us from 51st (last, including the District of Columbia) in teacher pay to 50th.

The session was quickly wrapping up, but not before the annual Department of Finance and Administration appropriations conference report was filed. More than 50 statewide projects made it into this bill. This conference report was filed at 5 p.m. and taken up in the Senate 20 minutes later. Minutes after it passed the Senate, an education appropriation for expansion of school choice (privatization of public schools) was found on lines 439-440 of the 23-page bill.

Earlier in the session, 14 bills involving school choice (vouchers) died with no interest in expansion this year. In December, a PEER report was released showing major flaws in the existing special needs voucher program in Mississippi. From FY16 to FY18, only 43 percent of the $9 million appropriated to the program was actually used. In FY19, public school special education programs were underfunded by nearly $30 million.

 

The same leaders responsible for severely underfunding special education in public schools slipped an extra $2 million into SB 3049 for vouchers for private schools that do not have to provide special education services to students. The bill was quickly held on a motion to reconsider in the Senate, as well as in the House, which also had hurriedly passed the bill without disclosing the voucher funding to its members.

The House voted three times on tabling the motion to reconsider, an effort to pass the bill on to the governor with voucher funds intact – the first time 51-58, the second time 56-56 and the third time 55-51. On the third round, enough votes were “changed” to move the bill forward. In the Senate, a voice vote was taken and quickly challenged.

Unfortunately, Lt. Gov. Reeves, who presides over the Senate, wouldn’t hear the challenge and the bill passed. Shortly thereafter, the legislature adjourned a week ahead of schedule.

Many argue only $2 million was for school choice vouchers, but public schools received a $58 million boost for a teacher pay raise. This is absolutely true. However, even with the $58 million increase, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) appropriation for FY20 will be underfunded by about $225 million. The MAEP has only been fully funded twice in 20 years. It’s designed to cover classroom costs, i.e. teacher salaries. Often after paying teacher salaries, districts’ MAEP allocation leaves little to no remaining funds for utilities, buses, building repairs, school principals, etc. As a result, local communities (taxes) often foot the bill for MAEP deficits.

Good communities and good public schools go hand in hand. Property values have been proven to increase with each dollar invested in public education. Statistics show there is an inverse correlation between high graduation rates and low crime rates. Successful public schools help attract economic development which brings higher-paying jobs and boosts a community’s quality of life. Public education is a win-win for Mississippi.

Holly Powell Dean and her husband Scott have three children in the Madison County School District. She is director of membership for the Parent’s Campaign.

 

 

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