On Tuesday, Mississippians will decide on the future of public school funding, and lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum are fighting to the finish to rally supporters.
The state Republican party has adamantly combated Initiative 42, a ballot initiative that, if passed, would provide judicial oversight to ensure the state Legislature fulfills the requirements of the 1997 Mississippi Adequate Education Program to fully fund public schools.
Democrats tend to support the bill, and dismiss claims that fully funding public schools will lead to deep budget cuts to other state programs.
The Dispatch polled local state legislators and candidates to see where they stand on Initiative 42.
Rep. Jeff Smith (R-Columbus) is against Initiative 42. Smith, who serves on the joint legislative budget committee in Jackson, said if Initiative 42 passes, other programs will be cut.
“If this passes, it will cut 105 other state agencies — with the exception of Medicare — 7.8 percent,” Smith said.
Many proponents of Initiative 42 have dismissed these claims as a fear technique, but Smith, who also serves as the attorney for the Lowndes County School District Board of Trustees, rejects that notion.
“The fact that there’s not enough money without tax increases or major cuts is the truth, not scare tactics,” he said.
Smith said that if Initiative 42 called for a more gradual introduction of fully funding, or had a provision that schools be fully funded if there is sufficient money in the budget, he would support it. But he believes the time is wrong for the present format.
Across the aisle, Rep. Tyrone Ellis (D-Starkville) said Initiative 42 is long overdue. However, he told The Dispatch the bill will only be a step to getting the state on the right path.
“It’s not a panacea for all that’s needed in our educational system, but it is a step toward that,” Ellis said. “Obviously, as long as we continue doing what we’re doing, we’re not going to accomplish much. I think, if Initiative 42 passes, it will be a wake-up call for us as policy-makers to realize the importance of trying to join together education and economic development. You can’t have true economic development without real positive educational changes. This is that first step.”
Since 1997, the state Legislature has fully funded MAEP twice.
This year, the Columbus Municipal School District was underfunded by $1.78 million by state legislators. LCSD was underfunded $1.98 million this school year.
Chuck Younger (R) Lowndes, Monroe County, District 17 Senate (unopposed)
“If the money was going straight to students and teachers, I would be for it. But if it’s going to some administrator and they are going to waste it, the answer is no and that’s my answer. It does not give the power to the people; it goes to the judges. I’m not for it. I know the schools need to be funded, I know that. But I don’t think this is the right way.”
Kabir Karriem, (D) Columbus, House District 51 (unopposed)
“I support it. I think if the legislators made a commitment to fully fund education in 1997 and have only funded it twice in 18 years, it is a promise that has gone unfulfilled. I think Initiative 42 does that.”
James Samuel (D) Starkville, House District 39 candidate
“I’m in favor of it. Inexorably, the future of our community, our state and the welfare of our citizens depends on our ability to provide a quality education for our children so they are to be on-par with the children of other states. If we can give $500 million to the one percent in tax breaks and incentives, we can certainly fund our children’s education.”
Gary Chism (R) Columbus, House District 37
“Here is the way that I see it: Initiative 42 has language that says it’s going to adequately and efficiently fund education. Those are two words in there, but neither are defined. To define it, it also has in there that a chancery judge is going to be the one that decides what those words mean. If it had the words ‘adequate education fund,’ we would know what that means (MAEP). Allowing a judge to define what those two words mean sets a dangerous precedent.”
Paul Millsaps (D) Starkville, House District 43
“Education is the most important thing when it comes to improving our state. It is directly tied to economic development, community development and a better life for all Mississippians. Education has been the centerpiece of my campaign. If elected, I will do everything I can to ensure that we fully fund education. No matter the outcome of the vote on Initiative 42, it is a concept that I believe everyone should support. I want us to stop short-changing our children and our future.”
A breakdown of Initiative 42, 42A
In 1997, the state Legislature passed the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to ensure all public schools received proper state funding. Since 1997, MAEP has been fully funded twice.
In 2014, more than 200,000 Mississippians signed a petition to put Initiative 42 on the ballot. Initiative 42 would establish judicial oversight over the state Legislature to enforce fully funding MAEP each budget year. The initiative would amend Section 201 of the state Constitution to read: “the legislature must fund an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.” According to the amendment, “The initiative will be funded by maintaining current funding levels for public education through the 12th grade adjusted for inflation, and then devoting to public education not less than 25% of future increases in general fund and other tax collections in order to achieve the constitutionally required level of adequacy and efficiency in the public educational system by a target date of Fiscal Year 2022 and maintain it in the future.”
Opponents to the measure in the state Legislature have put forth an alternate measure, 42A, which would require lawmakers to support an “effective system of free public schools,” but with no judicial oversight. 42A would essentially leave the current law untouched.
In order to pass, 42 or 42A would need to receive at least 40 percent of the vote. Should more than 50 percent of voters select to reject amending the constitution, the motion will die.
Voters will have to check two boxes to cast a vote to amend the state constitution. First, voters will be presented with two options: The approval of either Initiative 42 or Measure 42A, or the rejection of both. Voters who select to amend the state Constitution will then check a separate box to decide between 42 and 42A. Those who vote against change the state Constitution, can still vote for 42 or 42A, as a provision should more than 50 percent choose to amend the Constitution.