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JACKSON, Miss. – A Mississippi mother of two took on the state legislature Thursday in a battle over school funding. She won.

In November, Mississippians will vote on two separate ballot questions that would change the state constitution to help enforce a 1997 law to equalize school funding across the state. Although the ballot questions appear to have a similar purpose, they could have very different outcomes.

One would let courts force the legislature to provide more funding for schools. The other would leave decisions on funding up to the legislature – something advocates for the first initiative say will continue the status quo and leave many schools across the state without enough money to fund basic services.

Related: Did Mississippi’s poorest students just lose their chance for a quality education?

Mississippi education funding
In a 2012 interview, Noal Cochran, superintendent of the Richton School District, said more funding would help him upgrade his schools, which were built with materials containing asbestos during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Credit: (Jackie Mader)

Adrian Shipman, a mother of two from Oxford, filed a legal objection to the latter last month because she said the wording of the second ballot title, originally called “Should the Legislature provide for the establishment and support of free public schools without judicial enforcement?” is misleading. On Monday, a lawyer hired by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Phillip Gunn filed court documents on behalf of the entire legislature to dismiss her appeal.

Circuit Court Judge Winston Kidd denied their motion to dismiss, and ruled Shipman’s appeal was valid.

Shipman’s appeal called for the wording in the alternative measure’s title to change so it clearly shows how the two ballot questions are different. Judge Kidd chose a new title, based on four options Shipman’s attorney presented. Now, voters will see the question “Should the Legislature establish and support effective public schools, but not provide a mechanism to enforce that right?” for the ballot measure introduced by the legislature.

Under state law, the judge’s decision cannot be appealed.

“I felt like the alternative was clouding the issue,” Shipman said. “I felt like it wasn’t clearly spelled out, and we wanted our legislature to be held accountable so they will be required to uphold the law, which is to fully fund education for our children.”

Related: Q & A: Mississippi superintendent explains why he gave up his salary to help relieve ‘wretched conditions’ at his schools

Last summer, advocacy group 42 For Better Schools (formerly Better Schools, Better Jobs) canvassed the state to gather enough signatures to have a ballot initiative put on the November 2015 ballot. If it passes, Initiative 42 will require a change to the state’s constitutional language that would mandate the Mississippi Legislature fully fund public schools. The ballot measure, titled “Should the state be required to provide for the support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools?” would give the Chancery courts the power to enforce funding levels.

“We’re just trying to make sure that the voter fully understands what the constitutional amendment is all about. The Legislature has tried to confuse this issue and complicate this issue.”

But after Initiative 42 earned its spot on the ballot, legislators responded by passing Alternative Measure 42A. Shipman said the wording in their measure’s title hid the its true purpose, which was to avoid any oversight of the legislature’s decisions about school funding. It also wasn’t different enough from the original initiative’s title, and might have confused voters, Shipman said.

“It’s very simple, (Initiative) 42 requires the state to fully pay its promised part of K-12 funding, but (Alternative Measure) 42A does nothing,” Patsy Brumfield, communications director for 42 For Better Schools said. “Its sole purpose is to confuse voters into killing 42.”

Related: Have legislators thwarted a chance to bring funds to cash-strapped Mississippi schools?

Michael Rebell, a lawyer who has been involved in school funding lawsuits in other states and who is executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University (The Hechinger Report is an independent entity of Teachers College), said there is a “world of difference” between the two ballot questions. The citizen’s initiative is “a pretty strongly worded constitutional amendment,” he said, but the legislature’s version is purposefully weakening the amendment language by leaving out the words “adequate and efficient.”

“We’re just trying to make sure that the voter fully understands what the constitutional amendment is all about,” James Keith, Shipman’s lawyer said. “The legislature has tried to confuse this issue and complicate this issue.”

Public schools are funded through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). This formula is already used to distribute funds equally to all public school districts, but educators estimate the Mississippi state government has underfunded schools by more than $1 billion since 2006.

Shipman said she filed the appeal because she felt the children of the state deserved it. Now, she hopes “voters will more clearly understand what they’re voting for and hopefully vote to require our legislature to fully fund education and the debate will end.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in Mississippi.

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