In November, Mississippi voters choose between two ballot initiatives to decide whether to change their constitution. The first, created by nonprofit 42 for Better Schools, requires the Legislature uphold a 1997 law on adequate school funding. The alternative initiative mandates funding an “effective system of free public school” and does not force the Legislature to fund schools beyond what it sees fit.
As my family and I sat in the spacious gallery of the Mississippi Supreme Court recently, my mind’s eye focused on a South Mississippi special education teacher just starting her career 30 years ago.
I listened to the Supreme Court justices pelt attorneys with questions about Initiative 42, the proposed constitutional amendment to hold the Legislature accountable for adequately funding our public schools. At the same time, I thought about that teacher who, year after year, struggled to teach her students with inadequate resources, often purchasing supplies and teaching material with her own money. Even the classroom chalk she would buy and bring with her to class.
In the Supreme Court chamber that day, the present and past collided. Thirty years after my mother became that special education teacher, here my family sat, looking at a public schools system that had changed very little. And I felt like standing and shouting to those justices: “How much longer must this go on? How much longer will our children suffer the consequences of legislative inaction? Enough!”
On Nov. 3, every parent of a public school student will have the chance to shout those words when they go to the voting booth and cast a ballot for Initiative 42. Even the staunchest opponents to this measure are not so cold hearted to disagree that every child has a fundamental right to a free and adequate public education. That means safe and modern buildings; classrooms that don’t leak when it rains; up-to-date computers, technology and lab equipment; and enough textbooks for every child to take home.
In 1997, the Legislature passed a law called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to adequately fund K-12 education in every school district in our state. Yet, since 1997 the Legislature repeatedly has broken its own law and has severely underfunded every single school in Mississippi. The results in the classroom are reflected by the hundreds of millions of dollars we’ve been shortchanged.
Nearly 200,000 Mississippians from every county and both political parties signed petitions last year to place Initiative 42 on this year’s ballot. This is a bi-partisan people’s movement of mothers, fathers, teachers and business leaders who each understand that underfunding our schools harms our children and damages our state’s economy and our future. Initiative 42 will require the Legislature to adequately fund Mississippi public schools under the 1997 law it passed.
Initiative 42 will help every school in Mississippi. Local school boards – we in our communities – will get the funding we need and set our own priorities. Politicians in Jackson shouldn’t tell us how to run our neighborhood schools. They should, however, return our hard-earned tax dollars to make our schools better and hold down our local property taxes.
Better schools will help our state grow. Better schools will attract new businesses, help drive economic expansion and strengthen our communities. Better schools will lead to better jobs and higher wages. In November, we can decide whether to increase funding for our schools or allow the Legislature to continue to cheat our children.
Earlier this year, a politician at the state Capitol said that Mississippi’s public education system has been an “abysmal failure.” That statement was an insult to all teachers, past and present, who committed themselves to the children of this state. It was an insult to every parent who believes in our public schools. It was an insult to every child who has graduated from a public school. And it was skewed logic based upon the notion that inaction will somehow lead to change. It will not.
Initiative 42 is an investment in the future of our children. Initiative 42 is an investment in our state. And, most important, Initiative 42 is a message to our children that success lies in accountability. Now we must send that message to our Legislature.
Adrian Shipman of Oxford, Mississippi is the mother of two public school children and is the plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Legislature’s alternative to the Initative 42 ballot measure.