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JACKSON, Miss. — Members of the Jackson community gathered on July 9 to push forward discussions about fully funding public education in Mississippi.

State Senator David Blount (D–Jackson), who led the discussion at the Arts Center of Mississippi, called funding public schools a “constitutional obligation.” The event, organized by Jackson 2000, a nonprofit, focused on the Better Schools, Better Jobs ballot initiative, a non-partisan effort to require the state legislature to fully fund K-12 public education.

The initiative calls for a change to the state’s constitutional language to mandate the Mississippi legislature to fund “an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.” Funding would be determined through the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP, the formula now used by the state to spread funds equally among districts. Although the state uses MAEP now, the legislature has fully funded education in Mississippi only twice since 1997. If Mississippi voters approve the ballot initiative, full funding would be required every year.

Funding public schools
Sen. David Blount (D – Jackson) discusses education funding.

In order to get it before voters, however, supporters of the initiative must get enough signatures —107,216 to be exact — to enable the legislature to certify it and put it on the ballot in November 2015. Charles Taylor, a campaign coordinator for Better Schools, Better Jobs, said the organization has collected close to 80,000 signatures so far.

Over the past six years, Mississippi has underfunded its schools by more than $1 billion. Some education advocates in Mississippi say a lack of funding is to blame for the state’s under-performing education system. For years, Mississippi has posted some of the lowest scores on national standardized exams and its graduation rate has lingered below the national average. In 2013, only 21 percent of fourth-grade students scored proficient on a national reading assessment.

Dana Larkin, a board member of Jackson 2000, which works to promote racial harmony in local communities, believes Mississippi will be a better place if the initiative makes it onto the ballot.

“While we’re working to bring the races together, we also have to build up opportunities for children and people to succeed,” she said. “We have got to fully fund education.”

Blount acknowledged that the whole process was no easy task.

“We’re talking about amending the constitution; it’s supposed to be hard,” he said.

“This will make sure that the legislature adequately and efficiently funds our public education.”

Those who oppose the initiative said the words “adequate” and “efficient” in the proposed mandate are too vague. The ballot initiative language references the word “adequate” as it is used in the state’s funding formula, which determines how much it costs to run a “C” or average-performing school district.

Blount encouraged those at the July 9 event to sign the petition even if they did not agree with the initiative so that Mississippians would be able to vote on the issue.

“We’ve got to recognize that our schools need a basic level of financial support,” Blount said. “The future of the state depends on a strong public school system and money is a part of that.”

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