On Thursday, the Senate Education Committees heard from Rebecca Sibilia (CEO of EdBuild), who could be one of the most influential in deciding how schools are funded in the state. The Republican legislative leadership had announced earlier this month that it would hire the New Jersey-based EdBuild CEO Rebecca Sibilia to review and make recommendations regarding the state’s current funding formula for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Sibilia repeated her belief in EdBuild’s “student-based” formula, which determines the base student cost of a regular student and then provides additional funds for students who have special needs or circumstances. These could include academic, economic, and special education requirements. After years of criticisms of the funding formula by lawmakers, EdBuild’s decision to hire them comes after a statewide discussion last year about a citizens referendum that would have required the Legislature fully fund the current formula. Sibilia stated that EdBuild will present preliminary recommendations by the close of the year and will continue working with the state as necessary next year. Thursday’s presentation was attended by school superintendents, education advocates, and lobbyists. Some think that tying a fixed amount to a student is a step towards vouchers for students who wish to attend private schools. Senator Hob Bryan, D-Amory said, “This is an effort to move in the direction towards vouchers.” “Eventually, there will be a piece legislation written in secret. It will appear late in session as a conference report and the Legislature will vote upon it without knowing what it is.” Sibilia said that student-based formulas allow districts to innovate and meet students’ individual needs. She explained that most states with student-based funding have a lower (base cost), which is just what’s necessary in a school district. The formula then has progressive weights associated to each student. Mississippi’s per-student cost is currently $5,300. Students who are eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program, as well as those who are socioeconomically disabled, receive a five percent increase in school districts. Sibilia noted that Mississippi funds special needs students based upon the number of special education educators. Mississippi is also one of few states that does not provide additional funding to English Language Learners (students whose first language isn’t English). Sibilia claims that Mississippi does not base its funding on the students’ grades. Sibilia said that students in the early grades are given additional resources in Florida and Georgia. This is because of the additional costs associated with smaller classes and more personalized learning for early learners. EdBuild collaborated with Georgia last year on its funding formula. Sibilia’s funding subcommittee recommended an increase of $258 million in the education budget, and, if funds are available, an additional $209,000,000. It adopted a formula that included three components: student-based funding, weighted student characteristics and categorical grants. These funds are used to fund districts for fixed administrative expenses. When asked about Georgia’s outcomes, Sibilia stated that she stands by the recommendations of the funding subcommittee. As lawmakers sought to get more details, such as how much additional funding poor students would receive in this formula for education, Sibilia reiterated that EdBuild will be able only to make preliminary recommendations by the end the year. Rep. Greg Holloway (D-Hazlehurst) asked EdBuild how it would shift resources from wealthier to less affluent areas. “I cannot tell you what our recommendation will look like in terms of equity. Sibilia replied that we will ensure there is strong equity provisions in our recommendations, which does not penalize areas with greater wealth. Many committee members were concerned about the lack of opportunities to provide input and receive more information from the organization. The chairmen of both committees assured them that there would be more meetings, but did not provide any details. Sen. Brice Wiggins (R-Pascagoula), was impressed by Sibilia’s recommendation to include as much education funding possible, including 3rd grade literacy coaches and early childhood education. The MAEP formula does not currently include funding for the state’s Early Learning Collaboratives. These are partnerships between private and public early learning centers. Literacy coaches and the money to pay them are not covered by the MAEP formula. Wiggins stated, “I think it is a great idea.” She testified that early education is valued by many people in different states. He also stated that increased funding for English Language Learners would benefit districts such as Pascagoula Gautier which has a large Spanish-speaking student population. Rep. David Blount (D-Jackson) said that he was encouraged by the EdBuild goals on its website. These include increased education funding as well as additional resources for students with low incomes. Blount stated that any recommendation should include input from parents, teachers, elected officials and teachers in order to be useful. Blount stated that if the people and their elected representatives don’t participate in the process, it is not credible.