State and students suffer from shrinking financial support for public schools
By Bracey Harris
Kaitlyn Fowler says there are times at her Jackson, Mississippi, high school when students attend classes bundled up in coats because the school’s sluggish heating system offers little reprieve.
For students and teachers at Murrah High School, cold classrooms are a familiar problem.
Three years ago, a student at Murrah tweeted the then schools superintendent with a request for space heaters. Temperatures that February day were just shy of freezing.
Last year, Fowler testified at the Capitol about conditions at her school, which opened in 1954, at the statehouse.
“We shouldn’t have to go to school in an overcoat,” she said in a recent interview.
Teachers forced to spend out of pocket on classrooms supplies, students like Fowler learning in aging buildings and parents worried about their children’s limited access to foreign language and rigorous advanced placement courses agree that Mississippi can ill-afford to spend less on public education.
But schools here are faced with that prospect every year as lawmakers parse out money that falls well below what is considered full funding.
The $2.3 billion shortfall occurring over the past decade has left Mississippi outspent by much of the country and outpaced by inflation as the state’s current K12 budget lags behind the state’s pre-recession levels.
“If you got the same salary your whole life and the cost of milk, bread and eggs went up every year, it’s like getting a pay cut every year; it’s the same thing with our schools,” said Michael Leachman with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive policy institute based in Washington, D.C.
Shrinking financial support for Mississippi's public schools has been seen as a possible cause for the state's shrinking population. Mississippi is down almost 4,000 people since the last Census, one of only eight states and Puerto Rico to lose population.
When school leaders feel the pinch of tight funding, tough choices — such as raising local taxes — often follow as they ration their state allocation.
For Jameson Taylor with the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, school districts rarely consider curbing administrative spending as a cost saving solution.
Taylor cites a report released in 2015 by the state’s legislative watchdog committee that found that over a decade administrative spending increased by 13 percent or $57 million, while instructional spending decreased by 3.2 percent or $75 million.
“The overall picture is we’re putting a lot of money into administrative spending,” he said.
Calls for cutting administrative fat have a foothold in the Capitol. Republican leaders, including Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, often emphasize injecting money into classrooms over central office positions.
Advocacy groups like the Parents’ Campaign argue that talking point argue masks that state funds districts receive actually often aren’t enough to cover teacher salaries. There’s also this: State law limits how much districts can spend on certain administrative costs.
Although Jameson believes factoring for administrative expenses means Mississippi is “likely overspending” on K12 education, he is a proponent of better teacher pay.
He maintains; however, education reform must encompass more than salary hikes.
“We have to look at professionalizing teachers and giving them a better work environment,” he said. “At some point even if you have a great teacher and you pay them an OK salary, they’re still going to get burned out because of all the red tape and hoops they have to go through.”
Lawmakers appear poised to increase education spending. Mississippi’s House and Senate are considering moving forward on a teacher pay raise this election year, but negotiations for a final figure are ongoing.
Oleta Fitzgerald with the Children’s Defense Fund counts herself among the Mississippians who see more funding for public schools as a top priority. The longtime advocate often wonders if much of the education spending battles in the state are too short-sighted.
“Most of the legislative work in this state has been around trying to get that minimal base of funding, trying to keep them (lawmakers) from diverting funds, when we know in our hearts that we need more than that formula in order for our young people and our communities to move forward toward the skill levels that they need to be competitive in the 21st century,” she said.
Fitzgerald believes it’s time to coalesce behind even more ambitious efforts, such as a statewide bond bill to repair or replace decades-worn school buildings.
“We can make progress incrementally, but we have to have a big vision,” she said. Mississippi’s vision has always been too little, too held back by such a focus on race and class,” adding: “we’re either going to be chickens pecking at the ground or eagles. I want to be an eagle.”
This story was produced with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to hold public officials accountable and empower citizens in their communities.