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In School Funding Fight, Mississippi Voters Choose to Do Nothing

Mississippi voters, facing two competing (and confusing) ballot questions on school quality, chose to make no changes to the state constitution.

(Tribune News Service)
This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more results here.

Mississippians rejected Initiative 42 Tuesday, a ballot measure that would have changed Mississippi's state constitution to promise an “adequate and efficient system of free public schools.” The ballot measure would have given a court oversight to enforce the requirement.

In order for Initiative 42 to pass, a majority of voters had to choose ‘Yes’ on a ballot question to change the state constitution. With 96 percent of precincts reporting, only 48 percent voted to do so.

Initiative 42 would have required the state to fund schools according to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), which the state legislature passed in 1997. MAEP is a formula that establishes “adequate current operation funding levels necessary for the programs of each school district to meet a successful level of student performance,” according to the Mississippi Department of Education’s website. 

The exact MAEP formula is complex but essentially determines that Mississippi schools are sufficiently funded based the per-pupil expenditures at the state's "adequately" performing schools, as rated by the state's Department of Education.

But the Mississippi's legislature doesn't have a legal obligation to fund MAEP, according to a recent court ruling, and it's has only been fully funded twice in the 18 years since the law passed.

Conflicts over state education budgets aren't unique to Mississippi. More than 40 states have faced school funding lawsuits. Most recently, Kansas is in the middle of rewriting its school funding formula after a court ruled that the current system doesn't meet the required legal standard; and a similar ruling in Washington state resulted in tuition cuts at state universities and an additional $1.3 billion for K-12 education.

Opponents of Initiative 42 felt like proponents didn’t consider the financial implications of the ballot measure.

“Our public schools aren’t doing their job," said Grant Callan, president of Empower Mississippi, a group opposed to Initiative 42. "Our schools very often aren’t up to par -- there’s no debate about that. But Initiative 42 is ultimately saying that more money is going to solve the problem, without thinking about the practical implications for the rest of the state.”

“It’ll mean an 8 percent cut across other state agencies. What will that mean for Medicaid? What will that mean for corrections? For our roads and bridges?” Callan said.

But it’s wasn’t just the money that bothered the measure's opponents – it was judicial oversight, which they said was an example of overreaching government.

“If you don’t like the way your state legislatures are handling the budget, then you can vote them out. We see this measure as taking power away from the citizens since it gives one judge in Hinds County [where Jackson is located] more power than their own elected officials,” Callan said.

That’s where the alternative to Initiative 42 came in. Introduced by state Rep. Greg Snowden, Initiative 42A, which was also on the ballot, made no mention of judicial oversight or adequate funding and reads: “The Legislature shall, by general law, provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an effective system of free public schools.”

If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is, said Patsy Brumfield, a spokesperson for 42 For Better Schools. “We feel 42A was only created to confuse people so they would end up not voting for Initiative 42,” she said.

Don’t count out the people behind Initiative 42, who are encouraged to see that the majority preferred the initiative to 42A. “We need to take a few weeks to take stock of things, but we aren’t going to just stop caring about the kids of Mississippi,” Brumfield said. “We’ll do something again in another election cycle, but what that is remains to be seen.”

Some aren't so sure this will come up again. “There’s no question that having this debate in Mississippi is a good thing,” Callan said. “But we had the debate and the people have spoken.” 

This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more results here.

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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