Initiative 42 is about equity funding
By Sid Salter
As the rancor in the public debate over Initiative 42 increases, the actual issues that purport to be impacted by the decision of the voters in November become more intensely clouded by proponents and opponents of the measure alike.
Proponents of Initiative 42 increasingly argue that voters are either “for” public education and the children or they are “against” them. Opponents argue just as stridently that adoption of the measure will have extremely ominous budget results that will be ongoing.
The truth is that Initiative 42 and MAEP are really about a transfer of wealth from the state’s more affluent school districts to the more impoverished school districts. It’s a way to equalize per-pupil spending between school districts as economically diverse as Madison County and, say, Noxubee County.
The fact is that Initiative 42 and the Mississippi Adequate Education Program for which the initiative seeks to guarantee “full funding” is a movement that has roots in education equity funding lawsuits that initially gained attention in the early 1970s and again in the 1980s.
Those lawsuits, principally Rodriguez v. San Antonio Independent School District in 1973 and later a series of related lawsuits that began with Edgewood Independent School District v. Kirby in the mid-1980s, challenged the equity of the school finance system in the state of Texas.
The Edgewood plaintiffs argued that because Texas had a heavy reliance on property tax as an element of education finance and because there was such a wide variance in per-pupil property values, then it was necessarily so that there was a concomitant wide disparity in per pupil spending between school districts.
The court ruled in the Edgewood case that “there are glaring disparities in the abilities of the various school districts to raise revenues from property taxes because taxable property wealth varies greatly from district to district.”
Those disparities in property wealth between districts lead to widely variances in amounts of spending per student, which represented a “real and meaningful impact on the educational opportunity offered” to a students in a property-poor districts.
The Texas lawsuits started a revolution of sorts. Lawsuits challenging state methods of funding public schools were brought in 45 of the 50 states. The Edgewood case ALSO set in motion a national series of state legislative attempts to avoid lawsuits similar to Edgewood by enacting equity funding formulas that headed off such litigation at the proverbial pass.
While it is disingenuous to say that the entirety of the Mississippi Legislature had no serious interest in true equity funding for public education in Mississippi when they adopted MAEP — many did and many fought to funnel more money into the state’s classrooms – it is also true that the equity funding program would have likely died on the legislative calendar had there not been a real fear of such lawsuits like those in Texas gearing up in Mississippi.
Equity funding — equalizing the state per pupil expenditures between poor districts and more affluent districts — is at the core of MAEP and hence at the core of Initiative 42.
Understanding why MAEP was initially adopted in Mississippi is part and parcel to understanding why lawmakers took a laissez faire attitude all these years — whether Democrats or Republicans controlled the Legislature — about “fully funding” the program and why legitimate disagreement remains over taking control of public education funding away from the Legislature and handing it to the judiciary.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.