JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- Mississippi Democrats on Monday renewed their calls for more education funding in the state budget.
At a meeting billed as a "Democratic Public Hearing," Rep. Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni, lamented the consistent gaps between education funding determined by the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and what has been approved by the state legislature. He said that lawmakers' debates about charter schools are a distraction from the state's education funding crisis.
"The sad thing is that they make it seem like charter schools will solve our problems," Straughter said. "Charter schools will not solve our problems."
Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, presented data from the Mississippi Department of Education showing that schools in the state have been cumulatively underfunded by more than $962 million since fiscal year 2009. Statewide, he said Mississippi could have employed more than 4,000 teachers with five-year salaries, or purchased nearly 20,000 school buses with the missing funds.
Due to the recession, the state cut hundreds of millions of dollars out of education beginning in the 2008 budget year, when it put $2.2 billion into K12 education.
A joint legislative budget committee approved a $97 million increase to the state budget last Thursday. But even if lawmakers put all of that money into education, schools would only get $2.1 billion in 2014, and that doesn't account for increased pension costs imposed in recent years.
Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, argued that the state can't wait for residents' income to rise to provide more funding for education. He said without quality education, the state economy won't grow.
Brown added that Democrats are only asking for a reasonable amount of education funding.
"This is not a Cadillac program," Brown said. "This is not Harvard or Yale. This is not the best there is, and it's certainly not the worst there is. But the legislature said, when this program was adopted, that we want to provide enough funds so that every child in Mississippi has access to an adequate education."
The hearing was made up of like-minded Democrats, though Straughter said all members of the legislature were invited to attend.
"They chose not to come," Straughter said of Republicans. "I think that's part of the problem we have in the state: we're not being listened to."
Later Monday, House Speaker Philip Gunn told The Associated Press that proper funding isn't clearly defined by the MAEP. Gunn cited state Auditor Stacey Pickering, who said that attendance figures are not evenly defined from school district to school district. Average daily attendance is one of the cornerstones for determining how much money each district is supposed to receive.
Beyond that, Gunn questioned whether more money would help.
"You have to subscribe to the view that money is going to solve the problem in a certain area, and I don't subscribe to that view," said Gunn, a Republican. "Giving more money is not going to equate to better performance."
Gunn said his home district of Clinton is top rated, but spends less than the state average. Clinton's student body is one of the most affluent in the state, but Gunn said he doubted that more money would help impoverished, poorly performing districts.
"How much is it going to take to turn it into a quality district?" Gunn asked. "Give me a number."
Associated Press writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report.