It’s not every day that state legislators, in response to an upcoming ballot initiative, decide to push their own competing measure for voters’ consideration. But that may be what’s about to happen in Mississippi, and it could be a first in the state’s political history.
In short: On Jan. 13, the state House of Representatives approved its own alternative to Initiative 42, a ballot measure this year designed to provide legal oversight of the state’s funding of public schools. And some are complaining that lawmakers are cynically manipulating the democratic process by using their alternative merely to defeat Initiative 42, which would explicitly grant state courts more power over school funding decisions. UPDATE: The state Senate passed the lower chamber’s measure, House Concurrent Resolution 9, by a 30-20 vote on Jan. 14.
Over the years many state lawmakers, including recently in Kansas and Washington state, have questioned or openly criticized state courts’ role in deciding whether legislators’ K-12 budgets meet their respective state constitutions’ standards. It will be interesting to watch the extent to which this issue becomes divisive in Mississippi.
Seeking Court Oversight
Here’s some background. The Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) is the formula the state uses to fund K-12. But for several years the state hasn’t funded the MAEP formula up to its prescribed amounts. In fact, as I wrote about last year, several districts have sued the state over the $1.5 billion gap between actual funding and what the formula calls for. Some lawmakers, however, including state Auditor Stacey Pickering, believe the entire funding system needs an overhaul and have raised questions about whether districts are being honest about their funding needs.
So now there’s Initiative 42, which will be on the ballot in November. (Mississippi is one of three states, along with Kentucky and Louisiana, that also have a gubernatorial election this year). The aim of the initiative, primarily backed by an organization called “Better Schools, Better Jobs,” is that the state must improve its efforts to provide an “adequate and efficient” system of public schools. Below is the proposed change the initiative (which got on the ballot by receiving a certain number of resident signatures) would make to Section 201 of the Mississippi Constitution. The parts that are underlined are additions to the current language in the state constitution, while the crossed-out portions are phrases that would be removed.
“Educational opportunity for public school children: To protect each child’s fundamental right to educational opportunity the State shall provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools The chancery courts of this State shall have the power to enforce this section with appropriate injunctive relief.”
The most important new language is the last sentence, which delegates clear authority to state courts to decide whether or not the legislature is doing its job with respect to “adequate and efficient” public schools. It also eliminates the language giving the state legislature the explicit power to decide what adequate and efficient might mean.
Focus on Results, or Cold-Eyed Politics?
Many Magnolia State lawmakers have looked askance at this proposal, believing that it undercuts their power. And in response, they’ve decided to push their own school funding ballot initiative this year. The proposed ballot language approved by the state House of Representatives Jan. 13 in House Concurrent Resolution 9, would amend the constitution to require lawmakers to provide “an effective system” of public schools. There’s no mention of any court oversight, and there’s no substantive change to how schools are currently funded in the state.
“With HCR9, focus is on educational output and accomplishments, not just funding for the sake of funding,” House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican, said in a statement quoted by the Biloxi Sun-Herald. " ... We want schools that are accomplishing something. We want schools that are effective.”
What’s the catch? Without getting into state legal minutiae, having two measures on the November ballot addressing the same constitutional language makes it much harder for either one to pass—it would no longer be a question of which measure received 50 percent plus 1 vote. Supporters of Initiative 42, such as the Mississippi Parents Campaign, therefore say that’s the only reason lawmakers are supporting the measure passed by the House.
The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reports that it’s the first time in Mississippi history that state legislators have introduced their own alternative to a petition-driven ballot measure. In fact, Daily Journal reporter Bobby Harrison reported that at least one lawmaker wasn’t shy about highlighting HCR 9’s true purpose:
Pro Tem Snowden says alternative would not require more $$ for schools. Its purpose is to block the citizen-sponsored initiative. #msleg
— Bobby Harrison (@BobbyHarrison9) January 13, 2015
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.