Budget & Finance

Judge Rules Against Miss. Districts in K-12 Money Lawsuit as Ballot Duel Looms

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 20, 2015 2 min read
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A Mississippi judge has ruled against several districts that want to force state lawmakers to fully fund the state’s formula for spending on public schools.

Hinds County Chancery Court Judge William Singletary denied the claim from 21 school districts that, over the last six years, the state has given them $240 million less than what they were owed under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. That’s the formula on the books that at least nominally determines state funding for K-12. However, the districts plan to appeal Singletary’s July 15 ruling to the state supreme court, according to the Clarion Ledger.

The districts are represented by former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who said in response to Singletary’s ruling that he was disappointed that “adequate funding” for schools is “a matter of debate.”

But Singletary pointed to a portion of the law governing the formula, added nine years after the formula itself was signed into law, stating that lawmakers could consider alternatives to the formula in years when money was scarce.

Singletary also said that he couldn’t find an interpretation of the law which would require lawmakers to simply vote to fully fund the state education formula every year.

What’s Adequate, and Who Decides?

In Mississippi, this district-led lawsuit is just one of two battles over education funding.

As I wrote earlier this year, activists seeking an “adequate” system of paying for schools filed Initiative 42 for the ballot this year (2015 is a gubernatorial election year in Mississippi). This initiative would change language in the state constitution to create a “fundamental right to education opportunity,” and explicitly give the courts the power to ensure there is an “adequate and efficient” K-12 system. The ultimate goal of the initiative is to dramatically increase the amount of state money distributed to schools, and to stop what the activists say is the shortchanging of schools under the current funding system.

However, state legislators responded by approving their own initiative for the ballot, Alternative 42, which requires “an effective system of free public schools upon such conditions and limitations as the Legislature may prescribe.” Why did they do that? Lawmakers argued that if voters were to approve Initiative 42, a judge, rather than the legislature, would have ultimate (and improper) power over spending on schools. Alternative 42 also does not include the provision that children have a “fundamental right to education opportunity,” and instead requires public schools to be “effective.”

Alternative 42 would also not require any additional spending on schools, and doesn’t provide the courts with any oversight.

Those supporting the original Initiative 42 have alleged that lawmakers only created their alternative in order to confuse voters, and to torpedo the chances that Initiative 42 passes.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.