State Auditor Shad White, in a report last month, gave the Mississippi Legislature a good way to justify this year’s pay raise for teachers in public schools.

White’s report, citing information from the 2006 to 2016 fiscal years, said Mississippi and its school districts have been spending comparatively less money “inside the classroom” than all Southern states except Texas and Oklahoma, along with Washington, D.C. This includes salaries and benefits for teachers and other instructional staff, classroom supplies and student transportation.

That also means Mississippi has been spending more money “outside the classroom” than 13 of the 16 Southern states. This is certainly a concern, but it’s not a complete surprise when you consider all the federal education dollars sent to a poor state such as Mississippi. The statistics may be affected by how much of this money is classified as classroom-related.

Using 2016 figures, White’s report said Mississippi spent about 71% of its education dollars on inside-the-classroom expenses. The Southern average of 16 states and D.C. that year was 73.5%, while the two top states, Maryland and Virginia, spent 77% of their money inside the classroom.

For a comparison with Mississippi’s immediate neighbors, Alabama is spending 72% of school money inside the classroom, Louisiana and Arkansas are spending 73%, and Tennessee is at 75%.

Three thoughts about all these numbers.

First, it’s not a surprise that Mississippi is near the bottom of yet another list. That’s what happens when you say that an adequate education deserves X number of dollars, but then trim 5% or 10% from that figure year after year.

Second, if there is a problem with White’s report, it’s that it does not include the three most recent fiscal years, since 2016 was the latest data available. Still, the broad point is valid: If Mississippi allocated as high a percentage of money to classroom expenses as Maryland, the Southern leader, it would add $250 million a year to classrooms.

As a comparison, the report noted that the state’s $1,500 teacher pay raise approved this year will cost $77 million. Expecting Mississippi to act like Maryland may be unrealistic, but the 2019 raise, and promises of more to come from incoming Gov. Tate Reeves and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, should give a nice boost to Mississippi’s classroom spending percentage.

The final thought, of course, is whether the state and its school districts can do more to control outside-the-classroom spending. This includes salaries and benefits for administrators, principals and office staff, along with operations, maintenance and upkeep.

It’s hard to complain too loudly when 71% of Mississippi’s education dollars are being spent inside the classroom. However, it is fair to note that most other states in the South are doing a little better than Mississippi in this regard.

As of 2016, Mississippi’s classroom spending was about 2 percentage points behind the Southern average. Aiming for that average seems like a good target for now.

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