JACKSON — Since 2008, funding for public education has not kept pace with funding for other state agencies.

Mississippi’s political leaders often cite education as the state’s top priority. They point to funding for new programs, such as reading mentors and an investment in early childhood education in addition to a teacher pay raise as examples to boost their claim that education is their top priority.

But in 2008, viewed as a high water mark in terms of the level of state spending, $2.565 billion was spent on K-12 education, compared to $2.614 billion for fiscal year 2018.

But in reality, the amount spent on K-12 education was $340.2 million less for 2018 than it was in 2008 when factoring in inflation. In other words, to accomplish the same buying power for 2018, it would have taken an additional $340 million.

As reported previously by Mississippi Today, by contrast it would have taken an additional $260 million to have the same buying power for the overall state general fund budget that was $5.63 billion in 2008 and $6.01 billion in 2018.

And it should be pointed out that while many of those new programs, such as reading mentors, are universally touted as good for public education, they in reality mean that local school districts have even less money compared to the 2008 high water mark to pay for the basics.

“Speaking of dollars ... there is just so many of them to go around,” said Phillip Burchfield, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Superintendents and former head of the Clinton School District. “Superintendents repurpose funds to make sure the essentials are covered. Essentials that include power, natural gas, fuel cost, buses, maintenance of buildings, not to mention instructional supplies. All have increased since 2008.

“Where does that money come from?... Superintendents have been asked to do more with less for some time now.”

To put in perspective, the Legislature passed a pay raise totaling more than $100 million for teachers in 2014. That is good for teachers and good for education, but when inflation is factored in, it is almost like the Legislature approved the pay raise, but never provided the funds to local school districts to pay for it.

For the record, the budget numbers comparing 2008 to 2018 spending levels are from legislative documents. And Democratic Central District Public Service Commissioner Cecil Brown, a former state fiscal officer and former key member of the House Appropriations Committee, did the calculations to ascertain how current buying power compares with that in 2008.

Brown used the 1.42 average annual inflation rate as determined by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics for his calculations.

Just to be safe, state economist Darrin Webb was provided the same education numbers. Using the Consumer Price Index and its 16.6 percent rate of inflation during the time period, Webb calculated that it would have taken even more — an additional appropriations of $377.9 million — to have the same buying power for education in 2018 as what was appropriated in 2008.

Perhaps, the cuts are what education needed. Mississippi’s standardized test scores — at least in the lower grades — are improving quicker than in many other states, and graduation rates are also rising. Based on those improvements, more money is not needed, some would claim.

“For far too long in Mississippi the only judge by some of one’s commitment to education was based on inputs — how much money were you willing to spend,” Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said earlier this year. “And while that is critically important … now the conversation is not just about inputs. It also is about outcomes because outcomes and whether our kids can compete is what is critically important.”

But the question has to be asked: How much better could the state have done if spending on education had kept up with inflation?

Bobby Harrison is the senior Capitol reporter for Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization based in Jackson.

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