CATEGORY: Legislature

AUTHOR: BOBBY

HED:Adequate Ed program approved

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON - The Adequate Education Program, which is designed to bring equity to the state's 149 school systems by providing additional state funds, passed the Mississippi House of Representatives Thursday in three hours of intense and sometimes dramatic debate.

For a brief time, an amendment was tacked onto the bill that would have required teacher pay be raised to the Southeastern average by the time the bill is fully implemented in July 2003. Supporters of the historic equity funding bill said the amendment was "fiscally irresponsible" and would have killed the Adequate Education Program.

But the two authors of the amendment - Reps. Terry Brown, R-Columbus; and Ted Foster, R-Pontotoc - said they were trying to provide money to attract quality teachers who could raise the academic level of the state's school.

While Foster said he was not trying to kill the bill, both Foster and Brown had opposed it earlier in the House committee process because they said the state could not afford it. On Thursday, their amendment would have more than doubled the cost of the bill.

The amendment, which Rep. Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, estimated would cost $250 million, passed, 73-41, when Foster and Brown first offered it.

But later in the debate, Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, asked that the amendment be reconsidered.

During the reconsideration of the amendment, Brown did not speak, but Foster did. He said House members who represented areas with poorly performing schools might not want to vote for his amendment. But, he said, his county had two top-performing schools, so he was voting for the teacher pay raise to the Southeastern average and for the bill on final passage. He did.

McCoy and others told the members the state could not afford to fund both the Adequate Education Program and a teacher pay raise to the Southeastern average. As a matter of fact, he said, it would be hard for the state just to raise pay to the Southeastern average.

"We have worked to bring a bill to help every child in the state," McCoy said. "But this has become a salary bill. Because of the escalating cost of reaching the Southeastern average (as all the states increase teacher salaries) this bill will break the budget."

On the second vote, the amendment was defeated, 72-43.

The bill went on to pass, 100-16, with Tommy Woods, R-Byhalia, being the only Northeast Mississippi House member to vote against it.

The Adequate Education Program, which has been described as the most historic education proposal since the mid-1950s when the current state funding mechanism was developed, now has passed both the House and Senate. Legislative leaders from both chambers probably will have to meet now to work out the differences, although under the rules, the Senate could agree to accept the House proposal.

Both the House and Senate proposals try to provide additional funds to ensure every child in the state has an opportunity for an adequate education. Currently, many districts have limited property to tax and thus cannot afford to offer the programs to provide an adequate education, the bill's supporters said.

The proposal would provide more state money so the schools would have the resources to offer additional classes and programs they cannot afford now. These additions could be in the area of technology or advanced classes or remedial classes. Under the proposal, all schools would receive additional state money.

The differences in the House and Senate proposals are basically in the area of money. The House version will cost about $115 million when fully enacted in July 2003 while the Senate bill will cost about $180 million when fully phased in one year earlier. The Senate version provides more money than the House version to help educate students in the free lunch program because, in general, students in poverty are at a greater risk of failure.

The other big difference is how the phase-in funds can be spent. During the phase-in period, the funds in the Senate plan can be used to improve school buildings, to add technology and in some cases to improve curriculum. Under the House proposal, half the funds can be used to provide an additional pay raise for teachers.

McCoy said allowing the phase-in funds to be used for teacher salary increases is an important component of the House plan. Both the House and Senate already have committed to providing a 10-percent raise during a three-year period for teachers. But that raise still will leave Mississippi teachers well below the average pay of neighboring states.

Dr. Wayne Gann, superintendent of the Corinth School District, said the Adequate Education Program is significant education legislation for the state of Mississippi. He also said he supported using part of the phase-in funds to increase teacher salaries.

But, he added, "I don't see how anyone could argue with the need to provide a more equitable funding system for the state of Mississippi. It is not fair for the quality of education to be based on the accident of where a child is born. He has no choice and in lot of cases the parents don't have any choice where they live."

Supporters said the program can be enacted without a tax increase. They said growth in state revenue will be enough to pay for the program.

"This does set priorities (in the area of education) for the state," McCoy said.

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