Initiative 42 could change how Mississippi funds education

Both sides in the Initiative 42 battle say they want to get Mississippi off the bottom of education rankings. But that's about all they agree on.

There was little middle ground to begin with and it has eroded further as each zealous group joins the fight.

Initiative 42 will either force the Legislature to improve Mississippi schools or hand control of school funding decisions to a Hinds County chancery judge, who could cut crucial programs or raise taxes to direct more money to schools.

Its effect on state government is open to interpretation and each side is passionately convinced it has nailed the answer.

In the middle are almost 500,000 public school students and the schools they attend.

At the core of the debate is the 1997 law that created the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a funding mechanism that is supposed to increase the amount the state gives public schools.

The state has "fully funded" schools under that formula only twice in the 18 years since it was passed.

Initiative 42

Initiative 42 supporters want to amend a section of the constitution to say:

"To protect each child's fundamental right to educational opportunity, the State shall provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools. The chancery courts of this State shall have the power to enforce this section with appropriate injunctive relief."

They say that amendment would force the legislators to live up to the MAEP law.

Critics say it would allow a court to take over the policy-making role of the Legislature. A few months after enough petition signatures were gathered to put Initiative 42 on the ballot, the Legislature passed, in a partisan vote, an alternative. It is the first time the Legislature has fielded an alternative to a citizens' initiative.

Initiative 42A

The legislative alternative would amend the same section of the Constitution to say:

"The Legislature shall, by general law, provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an effective system of free public schools."

The pro-Initiative 42 people say that 42A was just attempt to confuse voters and kill the 42, something not one of the officials behind it denies. And the Republicans who lead the state are openly campaigning against the amendment.

The state Department of Education hasn't taken a position on Initiative 42 but is on the record saying the Legislature should fund schools at the level prescribed by MAEP.

"I've just been encouraging people to do their homework on both initiatives so that when you get into the voting booth you're well-educated on the initiatives and have a sense of what they would mean to you," state Education Superintendent Carey Wright told the League of Women Voters of the Gulf Coast last week in Ocean Springs. Most of the league members openly support Initiative 42. Wright supports her board's stance.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves argues the Legislature has added $288 million to K-12 schools over the last four years.

If 42 passes, he said, that work could be undone, well-financed districts could lose state money and a judge in Hinds County could take over the Legislature's policy-making role.

"What I keep hearing, regardless of how they feel about their elected representatives, at least they have a chance to vote on them," Reeves said. "Very few people have a chance to vote on who that one judge in Hinds County is.

"That one judge in Hinds County could decide -- I don't think the Mississippi Legislature ever would -- that one judge in Hinds County may decide that revenue stream (from casino taxes) the Coast is getting is such that they shouldn't be getting as much money from the state as they're getting."

Reeves' opponent in the Nov. 3 election, Tim Johnson, like most other Democrats, is firmly in favor of Initiative 42.

"Check that box, get us off the bottom," he said.

Argument in favor

It's that "one judge" argument that initiative supporters find particularly galling. One surefire way to keep a judge out of education decision, they say, is for lawmakers to obey the law they passed. And, it's state law, not the amendment, that mandates any case that might arise from the amendment be heard in Hinds County.

"It's been 18 years and I think that's part of the thing that gets (Initiative 42 supporters') goat -- there have been these stories about legislators just doing the best they can," said Patsy Brumfield, spokeswoman for 42 for Better Schools. "But even in the last three years, there has been nobody who has stepped out and said, 'Look, we want to do something about it, we want to sit down and work it out so we have a date when we know it's going to happen.' And it's not happened.

"The track record says Initiative 42 is the only and last tool available to make them fund our schools."

The initiative grew out of the group Better Schools, Better Jobs -- a forerunner of 42 for Better Schools -- which was formed in January 2014. It was the driving force behind a petition drive that collected almost 200,000 signatures and got the issue on the ballot.

But it wasn't alone on that playing field for long. New groups sprouted on both sides of the issue.

Empower Mississippi opposes. The Parents' Campaign supports. Improve Mississippi opposes. Mississippi Association of Educators supports.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have flowed into the campaigns. And there are everyday citizens not connected to any group -- teachers, parents, business people, clergy -- who have strong feelings about the initiative.

Argument against

Russell Latino, who's been involved in conservative politics for more than 10 years and is the founder of the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, put his law practice on hold to start Kids First Mississippi.

"I don't think the amendment to the Constitution does what the proponents of Initiative 42 say it does," he said. "I think the way the amendment is written, it doesn't directly address funding, it doesn't address MAEP, it says nothing about a phase-in (of increased education funding). What it does is to literally delete references to the Legislature, to create a new standard for our schools, the adequate and efficient standard, and then to ask the court to enforce that standard.

"So I see a shift from elected Legislature to the judiciary on education policy and education spending that is actually reflected in the amendment that I think is dangerous to somebody who believes in representative government and separation of powers."

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