Mississippi

Mississippi’s school funding challenge could be headed to court, no matter what voters decide

Mississippi educators carefully watching today’s landmark Initiative 42 vote

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In this file photograph taken on Monday evening, Aug. 17, 2015, people listen to Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann speak at the beginning of the forum about Initiative 42 at the Link Centre in Tupelo, Miss. The initiative is a proposed amendment to the state constitution that aims to enhance the state’s financial commitment to public education.

No matter how Mississippians vote Tuesday on a sweeping school funding initiative designed to give more money to the state’s struggling public school system, odds are good that lawsuits will follow, school financing experts say. And those lawsuits could mean students will have to wait have even longer for updated textbooks, computers, more reliable buses and school repairs in this poor and rural state that consistently lags behind.

Nationally, 46 lawsuits have been filed seeking improved school funding, according to Michael A. Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity. Most states have been hit with multiple lawsuits, and in some — including Texas, California and Florida — disputes have extended for a decade or more.

“I think with all the goings-on we have seen so far in Mississippi, it seems litigation is coming,” Rebell said. “Generally, the wheels of justice do clank slowly, so any judicial resolution of a controversy, with appeals, could take several years.”

Rebell said, however, that often, when plaintiffs are credible and have strong backing, looming litigation can push lawmakers to better fund public schools.

Nevada, Utah, Hawaii and Delaware are the only states that have not had school funding lawsuits filed, according to the Campaign for Educational Equity, housed at Teachers College, Columbia University. (The Hechinger Report is an independently funded unit of Teachers College)

Mississippi previously had a lawsuit filed by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove that tried to push the legislature to retroactively fund schools. That case was unsuccessful, in part because the state’s existing constitutional language did not provide public school students with a guarantee of adequate or equitable funding.

Related: Mississippians baffled over upcoming school funding vote

On Tuesday, Mississippi voters are deciding whether to approve Initiative 42, which calls for a constitutional amendment requiring the state to fund an “adequate and efficient” system of public school districts by 2022. Using the formula that Initiative 42 calls for, over $200 million more would need to go to public education during the 2016 fiscal year, although proponents of the initiative note that full funding is not required until 2022. Using that same formula, Mississippi schools have been shorted $1.7 billion since 2008. That’s money superintendents have said they need to repair crumbling buildings, buy buses, provide up-to-date textbooks, upgrade computers and give extra attention to kids who are behind.

Rep. Greg Snowden, the Meridian Republican who is primary author of an alternative initiative created as a roadblock to 42, said that he fully expects a flurry of lawsuits – both if Initiative 42 passes and if it doesn’t.

“I will be shocked if there aren’t at least a half a dozen lawsuits related to this thing,” Snowden said. “I think we know those lawsuits are coming.”

If 42 fails, Snowden expects supporters to challenge the election in court. A lawsuit challenging the wording of the state’s ballot was withdrawn in September because of concerns the lawsuit would have delayed military voting.

If the initiative passes, Snowden expects challenges to how the additional school funds are distributed. He said he could see some school districts or community activists suing to get more of the available money, and possibly some individuals and groups making the case that funding is unfair.

Patsy Brumfield, communications director for 42 for Better Schools, remained hopeful on Tuesday that the initiative will pass and the legislature will honor the people’s will and adopt full funding. She wouldn’t speculate on whether legal action might be taken if the measure fails.

“You don’t get to pick which parts of the constitution you are going to abide by or not abide by,” Brumfield said. “Our hope is they will sit down that first day the legislature is in session and figure out how to fully fund our schools. The money is there.”

Related: Some Mississippi educators told to stay quiet on school funding battle

Snowden said Monday he is leaning toward a vote for full funding if 42 passes, but has not yet consulted with Republican legislative leadership. He says he also is concerned about potential budget cuts that might need to be made if K-12 education is fully funded.

State Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, explains a summary of the resolution, which he authored, that adds an alternative to Initiative 42, a state constitutional referendum on school funding, that will appear on the November ballot, during floor debate in House chambers at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015. In spite of strong opposition by Democrats, the Republican controlled House voted 64-57 for the resolution, which if passed by the Senate would give voters two choices on a Constitutional amendment for the funding of public education.

“My personal opinion is that if 42 passes, we fund the formula, and then people would have a harder time suing, saying the funding that is there isn’t adequate,” Snowden said. “But I could be talked out of that.”

If 42 passes, funding would be determined using the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) formula, established as state law in 1997 as part of an effort to better fund public education and provide relief to districts in areas with weak local tax bases.

The formula was written into law as a promise to public schools, but it’s been funded just twice in 18 years. The constitutional amendment would give teeth to the 1997 law, and if requirements of the amendment weren’t met, the state’s chancery courts could enforce funding. An appeal could then go to the state supreme court.

In Mississippi, the state constitution requires the state to maintain and support free public schools, but leaves the level of funding up to the legislature. Other state constitutions require their public schools to meet a certain level of quality or include strong mandates for how schools should be funded. State constitutions in Florida and Washington, for example, state that providing education is the legislature’s “paramount duty.”

“If a guarantee is written into the state’s constitution, then they [the states] have the right to go to court,” Rebell said.

In Mississippi, the ballot initiative has grown more complicated because it has two parts, something that became necessary after the Mississippi legislature, at the urging of Republican leadership, voted last spring to add an additional initiative known as Initiative 42A to the ballot. The alternative initiative would basically nullify 42 and would keep Mississippi’s school funding system as it is. In another twist, the Mississippi Republican Party had been asking voters to vote against both measures, leaving the party in the unusual position of being against an initiative it put on the ballot in the first place.

In the meantime, as voters go to the polls, Mississippi educators say they will be watching the election results carefully, hoping more money is on the way.

“I am on pins and needles over here,” said Billy Joe Ferguson, Carroll County Schools Superintendent, who said his district needs new buses, new textbooks and additional staff. “It’s like Christmas Eve and I have this anticipation that something good is on its way…We have felt powerless about school funding in the past, but not today. Today, we have the power, and it feels good to be part of something that’s bigger than we are.”

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

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