You'd think that with a better-educated workforce the consensus key to a better Mississippi, the Legislature would leave no stone unturned in dogged pursuit, focusing its full attention on schools in this, the state that lags all others.
You wouldn't expect its leaders to pull out their bag-o-tricks (the supersized version) to defeat a citizen proposition with a "better schools" goal.
But they have.
If passed on Nov. 3, Initiative 42 would simply add impetus to the Legislature being as financially supportive of public education as existing law already requires.
Yet we hear:
- "It will cause an immediate 7.8 percent cut in all other state budgets."
- "It will cause tuition to rise."
- "It will give trial lawyers a field day."
- "It will take away local control of schools."
- "It will cause kittens, especially cute ones, to suffer."
Those are the verses being sung by the powers-that-be.
Not true. Not true. Not true. Not true. And for the sake of furry little beasts, we can hope not true.
And the chorus?
Wow. Yes, they dusted that one off. It was deployed in 1860, 1954, 1962, 1983 and here we are with it again in 2015.
"If you vote for this, you will be surrendering your rights to a judge who cares nothing about your local schools, unlike those of us you elect to represent you in the Legislature. The judge will take your money and give it to others."
News alert: Public education at all levels in Mississippi has been under court oversight of one type or another for about 70 years. No local district dares step outside existing state and federal controls. Dodging a federal "equal funding" suit was the core purpose of creating the existing funding formulas in 1997. More state funds already go to "poor" districts!
So why all the sleight-of-mouth?
In a way, it's merely turf. Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, designated spokesman for the "legislative alternative" on the ballot, takes the position the state allocates as much as it can to K-12 education. He truthfully says there have been significant increases most years, including this year. (He doesn't mention the budget surplus.)
Backers of Initiative 42 -- who've also been called "liberals" and "Obama-lovers" (as if describing them as kitten-haters wasn't enough) -- likely would never have started the process if the Legislature had simply allocated the minimum cash required by state law. "Failure to fully fund" is why they waded their way through Mississippi's murky and complex process and gathered more than 200,000 signatures to force the question.
For 42 to pass, though, there are more mazes. Some of the twists are due to traps and artifices in the 1990s legislation that gave (at least nominally) the power of direct action to voters. The rest is due to the decision by lawmakers earlier this year to add a trap -- 42A. It changes nothing. Its sole purpose is to siphon off unwary voters.
For months now, funds have been flowing into information (and misinformation) campaigns, scare talk has been unprecedented and chits have been called in. "Establishment Mississippi" has been coached and coaxed into being "for" 42A, which, as stated, is a statement that everything is just peachy in K-12 schools, thank you.
But this must be said: Money is a very small fly in the ointment of education ills. Schools could spend twice what they're spending today and it would make no difference -- zip, zero, nada -- as long as an increasing number of students and their families believe obtaining an education is not worthwhile.
It's a chicken and egg kind of thing. No "good jobs" employer is going to locate where the prospects for employees are poor. Likewise, few seek an education in locales where there is little hope, little belief that "good jobs" are in their future. A subsistence lifestyle follows.
One rung at a time
As much as we might hope, Initiative 42 is not a single-shot solution. It is a start, and that's all it is.
Responsible voices in the Legislature have been saying this all along. It's like climbing a ladder -- one rung at a time. Do as much as you can for schools. Next step, do as much as you can to encourage employers. Then do more for schools, then more to encourage employment.
Mississippi today is still wracked by the belief that progress for one group means a loss for another. That is wrong, so terribly wrong. As both President Kennedy and President Reagan said: "A rising tide lifts all boats."
The Campaign for Better Schools will end. The need for better schools won't.
Charlie Mitchell, former editor of the Vicksburg Post, is assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.