Inside Mississippi’s Confusing, Controversial and Deceptive Ballot War Over School Funding

By Mark Keierleber

How much money should a school receive in order to be effective, and who should be held accountable if it doesn’t? Next week, Mississippi voters have a chance to make that call.

When Mississippians show up to the polls on Nov. 3, however, the options won’t be a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, they will face two almost identically named ballot questions to amend the state’s constitution. Initiative 42, placed before voters after citizens gathered more than the necessary 107,000 valid voter signatures, would force state lawmakers to “adequately fund” the schools and open the legislators up to lawsuits if they don’t. Initiative 42A, an alternative approved by the state’s Republican-led legislature, would essentially leave school funding discretion to the elected state officials and remove any threat of court action.

In what has become Mississippi’s most contentious political arms race in recent memory, stakeholders from all sides of the debate have blasted residents with a whirlwind of partisan talking points and misinformation. The barrage has surely left some voters confused.

On one side, Democratic lawmakers and education funding advocates have painted a bleak picture of Mississippi’s chronically underfunded schools — calling the ballot initiative a last-ditch effort to save the education system in one of the poorest states in the country.

On the other end of the spectrum, opponents are calling the citizen-led ballot initiative a siege on the democratic process — ripping decisions about school funding from the hands of elected legislators and passing them over to the courts.

Who to believe? Melissa Bass, an associate professor at the University of Mississippi’s Department of Public Policy Leadership, has developed a roadmap for voters to decipher the differences.

“I certainly see evidence of not entirely accurate information being put out about the initiatives,” she said. “And a lot of people then being confused when you have advocates saying one thing and opponents saying that it will do something entirely different.”

It appears this confusion is exactly what the state’s Republican-controlled legislature is banking on. Unless 40 percent of voters approve one of the initiatives, including voters who skip the ballot questions altogether, the state’s constitution will not change. This is the first time state lawmakers have approved an alternative ballot initiative — a strategy driven, school funding advocates say, by their true desire to maintain the status quo by having both ballot questions tank.

At the root of the debate is a 1997 law, the Mississippi Adequate Education Act, which established a formula to determine adequate levels of funding necessary to achieve successful student performance. The calculation is based on the average costs of school districts considered academically successful and economically efficient. Since then, however, on only two occasions have state lawmakers fully funded the state’s public schools under the formula. Lawmakers argue the state doesn’t have enough money to up education spending to meet the formula’s requirements, but public school advocates say proposed tax cuts and rainy day fund contributions tell a different story.

Advocates supporting increased education spending say legislators have shortchanged Mississippi schools by about $1.7 billion since 2009. The legislature approved $2.5 billion in K-12 education spending in 2015, a $100 million increase from last year but more than $200 million short of complying with the 1997 law.

While the national average per-pupil spending on public education was $10,700 in the 2013 fiscal year, it varied drastically between states, according to U.S. Census data. New York spent the most, at $19,818, and Utah spent the least, at $6,555. Mississippi’s per-pupil spending was 45th, at $8,130 per student.

“We acknowledge that money is not always the answer to every problem, but the lack of money certainly causes problems,” said Patsy Brumfield, spokeswoman of 42 for Better Schools, the group backing the school funding initiative.

If approved, Initiative 42 would amend the state’s constitution to require the legislature to fund “an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.” The amendment also comes with an enforcement mechanism, opening the door to lawsuits if lawmakers don’t follow the constitution. State law currently does not provide legal recourse if the legislature does not follow the funding formula.

“In many districts where they do not have strong local economies, they’re hanging on by their fingernails,” Brumfield said. “They’ve had to increase class sizes, they cannot hire teachers, they cannot mend leaking roofs, they’re driving old school buses. It’s just a terrible, terrible situation.”

The 42 for Better Schools group has proposed the legislature dedicate 25 percent of future increases in general funds and other tax collections to K-12 funding until the formula is fully funded. If approved however, the constitutional amendment would take effect immediately, and without obligations to follow the phase-in recommendation. Bass, the University of Mississippi professor, said the amendment could open up the legislature to immediate litigation.

Under Initiative 42A, the legislature-approved alternative, a constitutional amendment would require the legislature to maintain and support “an effective system” of free public schools. The amendment would not provide judicial remedy. Bass said she doubts 42A would prompt any changes.

“This was much more a political statement than an effort to propose an alternative that they actually expected to pass,” Bass said. “The majority of the legislature that voted for 42A actually does not want to see this pass.”

Grant Callen, founder and president of the school choice advocacy group Empower Mississippi, said his organization is working to steer voters away from both amendments. While he called Initiative 42A unnecessary, he said Initiative 42 would put too much power in the hands of the state Chancery Court, which hears all lawsuits filed against the state.

Even though the Chancery Court’s ruling — regardless of outcome — would likely be appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, Callen said it would be “a disaster” if decisions about school funding were given to the courts “and suddenly law is being made and funds are being appropriated by the judicial branch instead of the legislative branch.”

“I don’t think our education problems can be solved with more money, but even if you do believe that, Initiative 42 is not the answer,” Callen said, adding that the school funding formula relies on an “arbitrary definition” of adequate funding. “Certainly, our education system is broken, and that’s where we propose a number of reforms that give parents more control over their child’s education.”

This fall, Mississippi’s first charter schools opened their doors to students, and more schools are expected to open soon. Of Mississippi’s fourth-graders, 26 percent were proficient in mathematics and 21 percent were proficient in reading , according to 2013 scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Because such a high bar must be met to amend the state constitution, even Initiative 42 supporters worry the proposal will fail to rally the necessary votes and boost education funding to the level the formula requires. If that happens, Eric Thomas Weber, also an associate professor in UM’s Department of Public Policy Leadership, said it’s time to look at other alternatives for public education.

“I’m not saying the solution to our educational problems are charter schools,” he said. But “I think it’s easier to make change happen on the small scale, and that’s why charter schools are an interesting prospect to me.”


Originally published at www.the74million.org.