Battle for school dollars now rests with Mississippi Supreme Court
By Charlie Mitchell
Most students are out for summer, having finished their final exams. In all probability, there were no easy answers. The quest for better K-12 public schools in Mississippi continues, though. Likewise, there are no easy answers.
Last week, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove fervently asked justices of the state Supreme Court to order the Legislature to obey state law. Justin Matheny, assistant attorney general representing the Legislature, responded that because lawmakers write state law — and have the power to rewrite state law — they are not constitutionally bound to do as the law says, whether they change the law or not.
Or something like that.
As this point, you may be as perplexed — as some of the justices seemed to be.
Legalisms aside, there is a divide when it comes to talking about public education.
One view, mostly from the political right, is that shifting to a model that incentivizes administrators and teachers is the way to go. The Legislature, the governor, the president of the United States and the U.S. Secretary of Education are highly enamored by “school choice,” which typically consists of contracting classroom management out to charter schools.
The other view, mostly from the left, is there’s nothing wrong with improving the model — they’re for it — but they question whether it can be done without leaving some schools and some students behind. They say it’s better to help all schools than abandon those that struggle.
There’s a lot of unhelpful finger-pointing in the conversation, too. The pro-charter believers call non-believers sponges on the treasury – feather bedders who want more and more dollars for less and less accountability. In response, the non-believers accuse charter schools of giving up on equal opportunity, of favoring the few over the many and, in some cases, shifting public dollars to corporations. (Education is big business, very profitable in private hands.)
For now, it’s clear, the pro-charter camp has the votes and the checkbook.
That’s what Musgrove is up against, and it explains the strategy of having the matter placed before the neutral branch of government.
His clients were 21 school districts that mustered the courage to sue the hand that feeds them.
It was 20 years ago that the Legislature dodged a federal lawsuit by adopting the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. The feds said state support of local schools needed to reflect that some districts were wealthier than others. MAEP was supposed to balance things out, but the Legislature almost never provided enough money to fund its formulas.
Eleven years ago, the Legislature revisited MAEP and inserted that the state “shall” provide districts the total amounts due.
Musgrove said the law was like a contract. If the state binds itself to pay $10 million for the construction of a bridge, it can’t later say, “Just kidding.” Matheny said one session of the Legislature cannot bind all future sessions. Justice Jess H. Dickinson begged for a precedent, any precedent: “I’m asking you is there some case somewhere that says what you’re saying or is this some interpretation or your personal view?”
And the court hinted at a possible constitutional crisis if the Legislature is ordered to fully fund MAEP and just doesn’t do it. What could the court do? Lock them up?
Musgrove’s client districts claim they are owed the difference between actual state funding for the past 10 years and what the formula would have provided. The gap is about $230 million. A victory would mean the state’s other 140 or so districts could claim “back pay,” and, of course, the state is pretty close to flat broke.
The lawsuit started in 2013 about the same time as the citizen petition process — Initiative 42 — was gathering steam. The petition, which naturally got a lot more press than the court case, led to a statewide vote on moving “shall” from a plain old statute to a full-fledged constitutional requirement. It went down in flames, largely because the Legislature pulled out and played just about every subterfuge in its bag-o-tricks.
Since the vote, lawmakers have hired a consultant to review how schools are funded and ramped up permissions for more charter schools.
Heretofore, the Mississippi Supreme Court has established a fairly solid record of deference to the Legislature. Justices here don’t have the “take charge” temperament that some courts show, so Musgrove and the school districts will likely lose.
That puts us we’re back where we began. Everybody, left and right, is for better schools. The issue continues to be how to get there from here.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.