Mississippi State Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, holds a handout with “stamps” of each Mississippi public school district and the amount of state funding the sponsors of the legislation said they would receive with the passage of a bill that would replace the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) during debate in the chamber, Wednesday, March 6, 2024, at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson. The Mississippi House of Representatives passed the funding alternative to MAEP, called the Inspire Act, that proponents say is a simpler funding formula and more equitable to the school districts as compared to MAEP. The bill now goes to the Senate. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

by Emily Wagster Pettus, Associated Press

The Mississippi House voted last Wednesday to set a new formula to calculate how much money the state will spend on public schools — a step toward abandoning a formula that has put generations of legislators under political pressure because they have fully funded it only two years since it was put into law in 1997.

The proposal is in House Bill 1453, which passed with broad bipartisan support on a vote of 95-13.

Work is far from finished. The bill will move to the Senate, which is also controlled by Republicans and has a separate proposal to revise but not abandon the current formula, known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

MAEP is designed to give school districts enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. Senators tried to revise it last year, but that effort fell short.

The formula proposed by the House is called INSPIRE — Investing in the Needs of Students to Prioritize, Impact and Reform Education. Republican Rep. Kent McCarty of Hattiesburg said it would create a more equitable way of paying for schools because districts would receive extra money if they have large concentrations of poverty or if they enroll large numbers of students who have special needs or are learning English as a second language.

“This puts money in the pockets of the districts that need it the most,” McCarty, vice chairman of the House Education Committee, said Wednesday.

Republican Rep. Rob Roberson of Starkville, the committee chairman, said INSPIRE would put more money into public schools than has ever been spent in Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the U.S.

“It bothers me that we have children out there that do not get a good education in this state,” Roberson said. “It should make you mad, too.”

Full funding of MAEP would cost nearly $3 billion for the budget year that begins July 1, according to the state Department of Education.

That would be about $643 million more than the state is spending on the formu- la during the current year, an increase of about 17.8%.

Democratic Rep. Bob Evans of Monticello asked how full funding of INSPIRE would compare to full funding of MAEP program.

McCarty — noting that he was only 3 years old when MAEP was put into law — said legislators are not discussing fully funding the formula this legislative 2024 session.

He said INSPIRE proposes putting $2.975 billion into schools for the coming year, and that would be “more money than the Senate is proposing, more money than we’ve ever even thought about proposing on this side of the building.”

McCarty also said, though, that deci- sions about fully funding INSPIRE would be made year by year, just as they are with MAEP.

Affluent school districts, including Mad- ison County and Rankin County in the Jackson suburbs, would see decreases in state funding under INSPIRE, McCarty said.

Nancy Loome is director of the Parents’ Campaign, a group that has long pushed legislators to fully fund MAEP.

She cautioned in a statement that the House proposal would eliminate “an objective formula for the base per-student cost, which is supposed to reflect the true cost of educating a Mississippi student to proficiency in core subjects.”

“Any total rewrite of our school funding formula needs careful, deliberate thought with input from those most affected by it: public school educators and parents of children in public schools,” Loome said.

Under the House proposal, a 13-member group made up mostly of educators would recommend revisions at least once every four years in the per-student cost that would be the base of the INSPIRE formula. The cost would be adjusted for inflation each year.

Twenty-one school districts sued the state in August 2014, seeking more than $235 million to make up for shortfalls from 2010 to 2015 — some of the years when lawmakers didn’t fully fund MAEP. The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that legislators are not obligated to spend all the money required by the formula.