In Mississippi, education money gap grows to $1.5B

In a state with a long history of lousy education, and a bad habit of not paying for it, nowhere is the problem more profound than in this tiny town in the middle of Mississippi.

Durant Public School teachers spend their nights on the Internet, searching for math and other problems to give their students because the school doesn't have any up-to-date textbooks.

School leaders say they can't afford new books or a reading coach to help raise the district's "D'' academic rating. There's a leaky roof and crumbling ceiling tiles, no marching band and no advanced placement classes. To save money, the number of teachers and their assistants were reduced and administrators took pay cuts.

The troubles in this town of 2,700, where the closest Wal-Mart is about 20 miles away, illustrate pressures across Mississippi. Since 2008, legislators have ignored a state law and spent $1.5 billion less on education than what's required. The cuts are among the deepest in the nation.

In response, about 80 percent of Mississippi's 146 have raised since 2008, the last time lawmakers provided full funding under the state formula, according to an Associated Press review. By law, some districts can't raise property taxes any higher to fund operations, leaving them even more dependent on state money.

The AP used data from the Mississippi Department of Education in its review, as well as calculations of underfunding by district made available by The Parents' Campaign, an advocacy group seeking full funding.

Some districts sued this fall to make the state pay what the districts say they're owed. Another group is trying to get a funding guarantee written into the state constitution, trying to force lawmakers to provide more money.

In Durant, about 60 miles north of the state capital of Jackson, teacher Rebecca Austin has to photocopy handouts for her math students because the school's textbooks don't meet Common Core standards. The old books are locked away in a closet.

"I'm up to about 12:30 or 1 o'clock every night finding stuff," Austin said.

State funding was cut as tax revenues plunged during the recession. Critics say instead of fully funding education, lawmakers gave large tax breaks to businesses and chose to fill the state's savings accounts. Another gap looms in the 2016 budget year. According to early estimates, the state could fall $280 million short again in 2016.

Across the country, state spending is lower than before the recession in 35 , according to a recent review by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Yet it hits Mississippi harder because the state's per-pupil spending levels were already among the nation's lowest and its percentage of students in poverty is the highest of any state. State ratings released by Education Week this year ranked Mississippi last in terms of student achievement.

Durant has 588 students in grades K-12. Teachers turn over quickly here, and when the district hires replacements, it tends to choose rookies expressly because they are cheap.

"Our first choice is to select those people with less experience, particularly people that are right out of college," said Superintendent Louise Sanders-Tate.

Administrators said the district chose to retain as many teaching slots as possible by forgoing new books.

"If we buy textbooks, we're not going to have the teachers," said Glenn Carlisle, a former Durant superintendent now serving as a district consultant.

Durant is violating a state law requiring every student have a book or electronic device to take home in every subject. State Auditor Stacey Pickering said the "vast majority" of districts don't comply.

School districts have tried to make up the gap by raising local property taxes. From 2008 to 2013, local property tax collections rose by $232 million. That allowed a small increase in spending on operations, but still fell $231 million short of inflation.

About one in six districts has reached Mississippi's cap on taxes for operations, putting the emphasis on cuts.

The number of teachers shrank by 6 percent statewide—about 2,000 teachers—from 2008 to 2013. Teaching assistants, once mandatory through third grade, have become increasingly rare.

Some districts cut the number of paid days for employees or cut the amount they add to teachers' salaries.

Sanders-Tate, the superintendent in Durant, dreams of raising the school's rating from "D'' to "A," but she knows it's a challenge.

"When you don't have what you need, you've got to make do," Sanders-Tate said. "I'm tired of making do for the kids when they deserve the best like everybody else."

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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