Policymakers discuss education at Chamber forum

An education forum was hosted by the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce earlier this week
Staff Writer

Education in Mississippi is under attack. Legislators from the region agree on that. But wide differences remain abut whether that's good or bad and how to address it.

And on other subjects, state lawmakers generally agree a lottery is coming and the state's retirement system won't be modified to take away the "almost sacred" 13th check.

During a forum hosted by the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce and featuring state Senators Angela Turner-Ford and Chuck Younger and state Representatives Gary Chism, Jeff Smith, Kabir Karriem and newly-elected Cheik Taylor, the most-frequent questions centered on education funding.

Chism was asked about increasing education revenue by increasing fees on fishing and hunting licenses or taxes on internet purchases, as well as the possibility of a lottery.

“There will not be a tax increase, and we won’t be raising hunting license fees to supplement the budget We Republicans just don’t believe in raising taxes,” Chism, a Columbus Republican who represents parts of Lowndes, Clay and Oktibbeha counties, said when asked whether lawmakers might consider raising fees on hunting and fishing licenses or taxing internet sales might be used to raise more money for education.

"We probably will see a lottery. I won’t be one of them who votes for it. If it gets out on the floor it will pass. It’s not the panacea that folks think it’ll be. They’re estimating $70-$80 million. I don’t think it’ll be tied to any one thing. I don’t think it’ll be tied to roads and bridges or education. I think it’ll go into the general fund.

“With the internet sales tax, states cannot collect that unless you have a nexus. Unless you have a brick-and-mortar building inside the state. We have got an agreement with Amazon, which I think was done because they knew they were going to buy Whole Foods which is a brick-and-mortar building within the state," Chism continued, explaining it will take a change in federal law or court rulings to enable states to enact a tax on Internet sales across-the-board.

Vouchers and more charter schools likely will be on the table as a major Republican issue on education when the Legislature returns in January. It again will be controversial.

“I think public education should be fully funded. I don’t think vouchers are necessary. I’m hearing talk of them coming up this session, and more charter school discussion," said Karriem, a Columbus Democrat.

"The largest single item in our state budget is K-12 education. It gets 40 percent of every dollar we take in. Once you put in community colleges and (Institutions of Higher Learning) it’s 53 percent. You’ve still got to fund Medicaid, we’ve still got to fund prisons, we’ve still got to fund all these other functions of government on that 47 cents that’s left," Chism noted.

“Money does matter,” said Taylor, who was elected in November to complete the term of Tyrone Ellis, who retired in late June.

“In Mississippi students get about $8,000 per year. But just a couple of states over they get $17,000. We’re talking about states like Georgia, Louisiana and Florida. Their education standards and levels are much higher. The adage that you do more with less doesn’t always work in education," continued Taylor, whose roots are in education as director of the Brickfire Project in Starkville.

“It’s one thing for us to talk about a percentage and how we’re trying to stretch the money that we have, but that’s not all we need to look at. As legislators we continue to make these decisions. We have tax cuts that have yet to be implemented and we have no idea of the impact that they will have, and they start next year. What are we going to do to increase revenue?" chimed Ford.

“We have not fully funded education,” she said. “We know our colleagues plan to introduce (an alternate education funding) plan sometime early in the session. There have been no public hearings. We haven’t heard from teachers. We don’t know what the needs are. I just don’t think it’s fair for us to argue the numbers without looking at the decisions that led us to where we are.”

The pending new formula sparked differences of opinions as to whether it was being done to improve the system or for political expediency.

“The particular formula we’re working with now is going to cost additional money. It will be something that we can fund. Whether it was Democrats or Republicans in charge, MAEP hasn’t been funded but twice. We are tired of being beat over the head by saying we’re not fully funded MAEP. We can’t fund it. We’re going to change it and fund this one for now on," Chism explained of the new formula.

“We have not heard from teachers, at least not on a broad enough scale to know how it’s going to affect our children. I don’t know what the new formula is going to be. I am very apprehensive about it," countered Ford, a Clay County lawyer who was elected to the Senate after the death of her father, who was a veteran lawmaker.

Karriem took a question about funding for pre-kindergarten programs as an example of how the state is cheating itself by short-changing education. Mississippi is one of only a handful of states that don't fund universal pre-K although it has had a pilot program for four years. Some local districts pay for the programs out of local dollars.

“I think it’s vital for our development that our children are taught at an early age. However, the supermajority feels differently. Many of my colleagues feel that it is just a babysitting service. We have to be open and honest and talk about how things really are and not sugar-coat things," Karriem said.

"Education is under attack. Pre-k needs to be funded. Children need to be in school as early as possible. But not only let’s fund pre-k. Let’s fund everything. We’re not funding nothing.”

Younger, whose Senate district stretches across Lowndes County north into Monroe County, said the issue isn't just money.

“You look at the city schools and they are failing,” he said, referring to the differences between Columbus and Lowndes County schools and whether money can help overcome race and socio-economic differences.

“The county schools seem to be doing better? Is that because of a black/ white issue? I have no idea.

"Throwing money at this education is not going to fix it. It’s lack of parent involvement. Grandparents are raising some of these kids. I think it’s a social issue more than it’s an economic issue sometimes. I’m all for funding for pre-k. We need to give them as much education as we can, it’s not just a money issue. I’ve had a lot of teachers come up to me and tell me it’s not money, it’s a lack of parental involvement," he added.

On the question of the state retirement system, Smith, who is chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and Chism were firm, although Chism acknowledged critics who say the system is not financially sound.

“There is no plan, and that’s with a capital NO, to do away with the 13th check, to modify the 13th check, to mess with PERS. The legislative budget group has met for the last three months. PERS is safe.

My mother lived off of it. She’s up in heaven somewhere, and she would come down and whip my skinny tail if we messed with it. If we do, I hope God will run over me with an 18-wheeler. It’s not being touched. Scripture tells us to treat others like you would treat yourself. We’re going to try to treat ourselves right," Smith stated.

“Don’t let me tell you (PERS) is in good shape, because it isn't. You’re supposed to have 80 percent of the money in the retirement system, and we’ve got 60. It’s awful. Even with the stock market as high as it is, it’s still awful," Chism admitted.