Legislature’s MAEP overhaul clearly rooted in Initiative 42 fight

Published 12:35 am Sunday, October 16, 2016

So exactly who is surprised that the Mississippi Legislature is considering making substantive changes to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program in the wake of last year’s politically bloody fight over Initiative 42 in 2015?

Initiative 42 put some choices in front of Mississippi voters on future funding of K-12 education.

Remember, state voters in 2015 faced three basic questions on the future funding of K-12 education. One choice was to amend the state constitution in the form of Initiative 42 – which would have required Mississippi to fund an “adequate and efficient system of free public schools” and would ultimately leave chancery judges in charge of defining what’s “adequate and efficient” at the trial court level.

Email newsletter signup

Pro-42 forces were quick to discount the “one Hinds County judge controlling state education policy” claim by pointing out the avenue of appeals to the state Supreme Court, but the voters saw the appropriations power transfer on that question as problematic.

A second choice was to vote in favor of the Legislature’s alternative Initiative 42-A, required funding of an “effective system of free public schools.” Voters weren’t overly enamored with that approach, either.

The third choice is to adopt the status quo and leave the K-12 funding process as it now stands — as the province of the Legislature. The final result of the hard fought initiative fight was that nothing changed.

The Initiative 42 fight did make clear to everyone in the state that Mississippians are passionate about the state improving its educational system. But it was likewise clear that Mississippians weren’t willing to improve our educational system by dismantling the appropriations authority of the Legislature or by crossing over to a system of judicial appropriations – or as one writer put it, to “govern by lawsuit.”

What’s unfortunate is that public education has become a partisan battle. On the left, Democrats entrenched with the state’s teacher unions at some point have to accept that Republican calls for performance accountability and for alternatives like charter schools in chronic failing districts can no longer be summarily dismissed as bad or wrong. The same is true for issues like school consolidation, pre-K programs, and other bedrock changes.

Democrats have made the MAEP underfunding argument the prima facie basis of their arguments despite record education spending under GOP leadership. In truth, Democrats talking about increased investment in public education and Republicans talking about accountability and innovation in public education can learn a lot from each other in Mississippi. Public education policy in Mississippi – from pre-K through graduate school – should not be a partisan issue.

After the vote last year, I wrote that “my sense is that the Legislature was paying close attention to the 42 vote and that the fruits of that battle will be an exhaustive review of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula. With the GOP in firm control of the Legislature, that prospect is concerning to the teacher unions and others in the state’s education lobby.”

Yet from the moment that Republican legislative leaders began talking about their review of MAEP, battle lines between the Initiative 42 combatants were immediately redrawn. Alarms sounded from pro-42 figures that the current MAEP review was fraught with danger from the Republican legislative leadership.

Again, the inarguable fact is the Mississippi Legislature under prior Democratic control and leadership ignored MAEP funding dictates in the very same manner that it has been ignored under GOP leadership. Lawmakers have only “fully funded” MAEP on two occasions since it took full legal effect in 2002 – both times in election years in 2003 and 2007.

The lessons from the initiative 42 vote ought to be that Mississippians are abundantly ready to examine the school funding question, but with all options on the table and in an effort led by legislators, not judges.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.