Mississippi’s education system has been bottom of the barrel for a long, long time now, through Republican and Democratic state administrations. In 1997, the state legislature passed the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), and provided a path to have it fully funded in 2003 and beyond. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. MAEP has been fully funded between 2 and 4 times since then, depending on who you ask. Over the course of that time, Mississippi public schools have been underfunded by about 1.5 BILLION dollars, and by this point about $250 million per year. So much for legislative promises.
But this year, we the people of Mississippi have the opportunity to enforce the law. An amendment to the Mississippi Constitution will appear on our ballots this November, called Initiative 42. We will be able to tell the legislature that they must fund an “adequate and efficient” education system or be taken to court. The use of the word “adequate” is especially important here, because adequate funding has been defined in the MAEP law. It is clear what will be expected if this amendment passes.
Unfortunately, the same legislators who manage to keep money out of the public schools every year have decided that we citizens shouldn’t have a straight up-or-down vote on our amendment. Republicans in the legislature voted to have an “alternative” appear on the ballot. This alternative replaces the words “adequate and efficient” with the word “effective.” The alternative also doesn’t explicitly say that the courts can enforce the amendment, although that’s probably implied by adding it to the Constitution. The key, however, is the difference between the word “adequate” and the word “effective.” What does it mean to have an effective education system? We could come up with 10 different definitions of that word, and trying to have a judge enforce one over the other would be sheer madness. This alternative amendment is designed to be useless.
And just being an option in November is going to make the ballots more complicated. It’s not going to be a simple vote between two options. No, first we have to “vote for approval of either, or against both.” If you vote yes to that question, you then can choose whether you want to vote for Initiative 42, or for the alternative. If you vote no to that question, you’ve voted against both. If you vote yes to the first question but don’t vote for either amendment, your vote simply doesn’t count. Most of us, of course, will be able to navigate this just fine. But some people won’t understand what they are supposed to do, and so will end up either voting incorrectly, or not voting on that issue altogether. That’s what the Republicans in the legislature want, because every person who doesn’t vote for Initiative 42 is a vote against it, even if they don’t vote on the question at all–because 40% of all people who show up at the polls have to vote FOR Initiative 42. If you skip that question, you’re counted as a “no” vote.
According to Senator Gray Tollison (R-Oxford), who defended the “alternative” on the floor of the Senate, implying that this process is confusing in any way is “offensive.” But then when he was asked over and over again what the actual process was going to be, and how many people needed to vote for the initiative, even he didn’t have a clue. “I don’t know the answer to that question,” he said. “I think the Secretary of State is charged with elections, and I bet he can explain that.” “I’m not sure.” “I’m just guessing here.” If he can’t answer those questions, how does he expect the people of Mississippi to understand when they go to vote in November?
But what’s really revealing, I think, is what Senator Tollison said when he was asked what the purpose of MAEP was. Now, I was here thinking that the purpose of MAEP was to provide a fair chance for all of Mississippi’s schoolchildren to learn. To help our children get on the road to a successful life early. To assist in breaking down the institutional barriers that keep many poor children and many black children in poverty for their entire lives. But no, that would be too high-minded. According to Senator Tollison, the purpose of MAEP is “to prevent school financing cases.”
Ah, yes. You see, many other states have been taken to court long before this because their educational system has had clear racial and financial divides. Rich white kids go to well-funded schools, poor black kids go to schools that are literally falling apart. The justice and fairness of this is obviously questionable, so they got taken to court and sometimes ordered to better distribute school funding. Did the wealthy districts hate this? I”m sure they did. Was it fair? HELL YES. We should be giving all of our children an equal chance to succeed, not giving the children of rich people the best education money can buy while poor people’s kids don’t even get textbooks. That’s not fair, and it’s as anti-”American Dream” as you can get.
The Mississippi legislature tried to avoid having this happen by promising us that they’d really, truly fund education at an “adequate” level, but then when it came to actually writing the check, they skipped out on the bill. Now, it’s time to pay up. Please go vote in November if you can. Our deadbeat legislature has mortgaged the future of Mississippi’s children for long enough.