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INSPIRE Act Revived in Mississippi House Amid School Funding Formula Battle

Closeup of a man in a suit, speaking
Mississippi House Speaker Jason White, R-West, vowed on Tuesday, April 9, 2024, to continue efforts to pass an education funding formula overhaul with the INSPIRE Act after the Mississippi Senate killed two prior attempts. The House revived the INSPIRE Act using another bill as a vehicle on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Mississippi House lawmakers have revived an effort to overhaul the state’s education funding scheme with the Investing in the Needs of Students to Prioritize, Impact and Reform Education Act, a new formula that House leaders say would more equitably fund schools statewide.

The Senate has killed the INSPIRE Act twice, first by letting it die on a deadline on April 2. Then, after the House amended the Senate’s school funding plan to replace its text with the text of the INSPIRE Act, the Senate killed it again by refusing to concur on Tuesday. But Senate leaders have suggested they would rather spend the summer and fall working with the House to find a plan both chambers can agree on and pass during the 2025 legislative session.

“I’ve looked through INSPIRE. I’ve researched it,” Sen. Dennis DeBar, R-Leaksville, told his colleagues on the Senate floor on Wednesday. “I just don’t think we need to address it during (the) session, and this is a way to take it off the table.”

DeBar told the chamber that he had spoken with House Education Committee Chairman Rob Roberson, R-Starkville, and relayed his willingness and commitment to address the education funding formula during the off-season.

Man in a blue suit and red checkered tie holding a stack of books and paper under one arm
Mississippi Sen. Dennis DeBar told his colleagues on April 9, 2024, that the Legislature should take time to study a new education funding formula plan and address it in 2025. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

But House Speaker Jason White responded to the Senate’s decision to kill the bill on Tuesday criticizing its leaders for refusing to agree to address the funding formula in conference between the two chambers during this legislative session. He said the chamber would not fund the current formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, again.

“The Senate took the extraordinary and unusual step to kill the INSPIRE Act funding formula

prematurely in addition to killing their own attempt to rectify the issues with MAEP,” White said in a statement on April 9. “Mississippi’s public school children will be directly impacted by the Senate’s lack of willingness to engage in the debate to address the current broken and flawed formula.”

“By refusing to have meaningful discussion on this issue and enter into the Conference phase of the legislative process, the Senate has moved to preserve the status quo, which will result in less funds to public schools and inadequate distribution in an unfair and inequitable manner,” he continued.

On Wednesday, the House amended a Senate bill dealing with how the State handles failing school districts and inserted the INSPIRE Act into its text and passed it by a 105-15 vote, resuscitating the effort. The lower chamber sent it to the Senate for concurrence.

White said he had “clearly communicated with Senate leadership the House position that we have funded MAEP for the last time” and that the House “will continue to look for ways to fund education with a student-centered formula.”

If INSPIRE became law, schools would receive about $240 million more for the upcoming year. Some schools would see larger benefits than others, though; Jackson Public Schools would receive $24 million more than under current funding, while the wealthier suburban Madison County Public Schools would only get a boost of about $49,580.

Senate Offers $206-Million Funding Increase Under MAEP

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hoseman, who serves as the Senate president, released a statement after the Senate killed the second INSPIRE effort on Tuesday saying that, although the chambers had not reached an agreement on reforming the formula, the Senate had agreed to almost fully fund the current MAEP formula for the first time since 2008. The Senate’s amendments to House Bill 1823, the education appropriations bill, would give an additional $206 million toward education over last year’s funding total.

Hosemann added that the legislation directed the Mississippi Department of Education to study the two new funding formulas proposed during the 2024 Legislative Session and provide a recommendation on how to fund schools by Oct. 1, 2024.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, speaking to the press in his office
Mississippi Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said on April 9, 2024, that the Senate is “not married to” the MAEP formula, but wants more time to discuss and consider any significant changes to the school funding formula. Photo by Nick Judin

The pro-public-education lobbying group Parents’ Campaign said that the increase was essentially the same as the one proposed by the House; however, $50 million of the funding in the Senate appropriation would go toward a $1,000 across-the-board pay raise for teachers.

Hosemann said on Tuesday that he is not opposed to considering replacing MAEP with a new formula.

“We are not married to the current formula. We do, however, believe any appropriation as significant as that which funds our school systems should be vetted and discussed with stakeholders including parents, educators, and the public at-large,” he said in the statement. “Studying the issue together, in connection with the Department of Education and our new Superintendent, will hopefully result in a new, long-term sustainable formula both chambers can agree on which is good for students and schools.”

The Senate’s plan that died after the House amended it on March 21 and the Senate refused to concur with the changes would have increased the full education funding level by more than $200 million, but would have essentially kept most of the MAEP formula in place.

‘No Real Big Losers Under This Bill’

INSPIRE has split education organizations in the state. The Parents’ Campaign, which opposes the INSPIRE Act, says schools could wind up underfunded under the formula because it does not include an objective formula to determine ongoing per-pupil costs. But Rep. Kent McCarty, R-Hattiesburg, told the Mississippi Free Press that their concern is unfounded.

The Republican representative said the total cost of the funding formula calls for the largest funding amount the state has ever spent on education. Gov. Tate Reeves endorsed the INSPIRE Act and asked Senators to support the bill.

“There’s been a lot of talk about how this can be bad for schools,” McCarty said. “But again, it’s more money than we’ve ever spent before and more than full funding would be for (MAEP in) 2025. It’s hard to say we’re trying to hurt public education when we are trying to invest so much more money into it, but that seems to be the narrative.”

Two men in suits high five while other men look around. A voting result board with many names on it hangs behind them.
Mississippi House Rep. Kent McCarty, R-Hattiesburg (center), said that the INSPIRE Act would provide more education funding than the state has ever spent on public schools. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

The INSPIRE Act would set a base cost of $6,650 for every public-school student. Lawmakers added funding weights for students in special populations such as a 30% additional funding weight for low-income students and weights as high as 175% for special-needs students based on the level of their Individual Education Plan. The proposal also includes additional weights for English language learners and districts with high poverty levels. A committee of superintendents and other education professionals would reevaluate the base unit cost every four years and make a recommendation to legislators.

“We really are looking at which districts have the highest need (and) which students have the highest need,” McCarty said. “Then we’re trying to push as much of the funding as possible to those districts. Because we’ve increased the total amount by so much that we’re investing in schools, there are no real big losers under this bill.”

McCarty used Jackson Public Schools as an example of how impoverished districts benefit from the House plan.

“Under the Senate plan, I think they (would) get about $300-or-400,000 new dollars in 2025,” McCarty said. “Under our plan, because we look at the needs of the students in that district, JPS will see about $24 million in new funds in 2025.”

Data the Mississippi Free Press acquired showed that in 2025 under the Senate MAEP rewrite, JPS would receive $112,117,502. The district would receive $136,230,569 under the House’s INSPIRE plan.

That data revealed that all but 18 schools would see increased funding during the first year of the INSPIRE Act. Most of those schools would see a decrease in funding due to lower average daily attendance. However, a hold-harmless clause would freeze the school funding amounts during the first year while districts with declining enrollment navigate the anticipated lower funding. After the first year, schools experiencing a reduction in funds would do so through a stair-stepped plan. In each of the following four years, any reduction in funds would be limited to 3%.

A handful of districts would experience a substantial funding cut. McCarty said that legislators had already spoken to officials in those districts and were committed to working with them to ensure that when the hold harmless clause expires, they would not be left unable to make their budget.

A ‘Fully-Funded’ MAEP Vs. INSPIRE

Parent’s Campaign Executive Director Nancy Loome said the problem is that the House used actual funding numbers from the 2024 school year and not the amount that schools should have received if the current formula was fully funded. She also said that the INSPIRE formula would actually fund schools by less than the MAEP revision because the bill lacked an inflation factor until year four.

“We would have three years of stagnant funding,” Loome said. “So immediately, in a year or two it would provide considerably less than what the current law requires. It would be about the same in year two as the total cost of investment in the Senate plan. By year three, the Senate plan would surpass the total funding in INSPIRE. And of course, MAEP would be well beyond what the INSPIRE would call for. Even the inflation factor that is included in the INSPIRE Act is very small.”

But McCarty said the bill includes automatic inflation adjustment every year beginning after the hold-harmless clause expires. The rate would be based on the Consumer Price Index for the current year. That amount would then be applied to the base student cost.

Official headshot of Mississippi Parents’ Campaign Executive Director Nancy Loome in a dark suit top
Mississippi Parents’ Campaign Executive Director Nancy Loome said on MArch 7, 2023, that the organization welcomes the move of the Mississippi Legislature to continue to “fully fund” public schools. Photo courtesy Nancy Loome

McCarty said that a large portion of the funding allocation under the current MAEP formula is based on teacher units. Mississippi has a base teacher pay amount and local school districts can supplement that amount according to financial resources. This means that teacher salaries across the state can vary greatly but the MAEP formula pays districts for teacher units according to the district teacher supplement.

“School districts that have a large local tax base (and) that can pay their staff higher are going to request teacher units with a salary that’s higher than they would be paid in a less-property-rich district,” McCarty said. “So just the very nature of that continues to push the inequity because our richer school districts are paying more and when they request teacher units and they’re funded based on the teacher units, they get more money to pay for the higher salary.”

Neither of the proposed plans nor the current MAEP formula include a mechanism to require the Legislature to fully fund education, which lawmakers have only done twice since adopting MAEP in 1997. McCarty said that he understands those who question why the INSPIRE Act would be any different, but that he believes there would be tremendous political pressure on lawmakers to provide the money needed after offering the bill as a better alternative. The representative also said he feels that it would be easier to convince legislative holdouts that the money is necessary.

“I think that it’ll be a lot more obvious the impact (of) these education dollars if we’re putting them in districts that need the resources,” McCarty said. “When we’re asking for increased appropriations, it’ll be a lot easier for us to justify those requests because we’ll be able to see the results with the money going to the districts at the highest need.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the fiscal year 2024 funding for Jackson Public Schools.

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