With Mississippi's economy worsening right along with the rest of the country, the crippling revenue shortfalls that are plaguing state and local governments will eventually focus attention on education spending - and not in a good way.
As a matter of fact, one high-ranking state elected official shared with me this week a Joint Legislative Budget Office analysis of education spending in Mississippi from Fiscal Year 2005 through FY 2009. At first blush, the numbers appear to paint a portrait of a state educational system that is funded competitively.
The LBO analysis found:
n FY 2005-FY 2009 Mississippi Adequate Education Program funding rose from $1.7 billion in FY 2005 to a FY 2009 appropriation of $2.18 billion. That represents a five-year increase of $434.1 million or 24.77 percent.
Those figures don't include another $100 million in Public School Building Funds utilized over those five years.
n FY 2005-FY 2009 general support for the state's eight public universities rose from $330.3 million in FY 2005 to a FY 2009 appropriation of $420 million - a five-year increase of $89.8 million or 27.20 percent.
n FY 2005-FY 2009 Community and Junior College Support rose from $156.3 million in FY 2005 to a FY 2009 appropriation of $245.7 million - a five-year increase of $89.4 million or 57.24 percent.
The community college figure includes a $13 million FY 2006 deficit appropriation related to Hurricane Katrina.
Combined, that represents a five-year increase in state spending for public education in Mississippi at all levels of $613.3 million or an average increase of $122.4 million annually.
Sounds great, right?
But it certainly doesn't represent an accurate picture of education funding in Mississippi over the last decade and the analysis ignores the fact that the state's colleges and universities have been particularly challenged from a budget standpoint for years.
In 2008, after 5 percent merit-based salary increases for two consecutive years, Mississippi's public university faculty still made $8,600 less than the average of their regional peers.
The College Board has increased tuition in nine of the past 10 years - with those costs up by 20 percent from 2003 to 2007. Why? Because state support has, in reality, been dwindling.
From FY 1996 through 2005, the state's percentage of IHL funding decreased from 35.12 percent to 25.31 percent - a reduction of 10.45 percent.
Tuition jumped 58.7 percent for state residents and 74.3 percent for nonresidents from 1997 to 2005 at the eight universities, according to the state College Board. That increase came while the state's percentage of funding for the university system declined more than 10 percent since 2000 through 2005.
In 2005, it cost $2.31 billion to operate Mississippi's universities. Of that, 25.31 percent was appropriated by the Legislature and the other 74.69 percent was self-generated by the universities through tuition, fees and other non-appropriated sources. Taxpayers also continued to underwrite university bonded indebtedness for new buildings and other facilities.
Spending per student decreased between FY 1999 and FY 2005, according to the report.
In 1999, Mississippi spent $5,499 per full-time-equivalent student. In 2000, the state peaked at spending $6,321 per student. But since that time, state student funding dropped for five straight years to $5,103 in FY 2005.
So when comparing the relative increases in education funding since 2005, it's germane to the discussion to view education funding from the long-haul perspective.
Mississippi hasn't thrown money at education. It has juggled it from cuts to increases to cuts to increases and back to cuts.
Sid Salter is Perspective Editor at The Clarion-Ledger. Contact him at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.