Should Educators Sue the Mississippi Legislature?

Habitual criminals are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, so if Mississippi legislators fail to fully fund MAEP, which is law, year after year, wouldn’t they fall under the heading of habitual criminals?  This appears to be the question asked by a growing number of school districts across Mississippi as they contemplate joining three Mississippi law firms in a suit against Mississippi legislators who have fully funded MAEP only twice in the past seventeen years, which certainly puts them in the category of habitual violators of the law.  On the surface a lawsuit seems to be a logical course of action to collect money the state owes by law to struggling school districts, but it could be a risky course of action as well.  State legislators may have short memories and shallow pockets when it comes to education, but when it comes to someone standing against them, who’s to say their memories won’t be long and unforgiving?  Therefore, it is wise for school districts to be very cautious and deliberate prior to joining this lawsuit.

Some argue such litigation is unwarranted since the economy has been difficult for everyone since 2008, and like everything else, underfunding schools should be expected during hard economic times.  That may be true, but what was the excuse for underfunding schools in nine of the eleven years prior to 2008?  Legislators claim each year that there is not enough money to go around regardless of any funding mandates established by law.  In other words, when it comes to financial accountability to education, in the minds of state legislators they are off the hook if state finances are weak or lethargic.  They claim they can only play the hand dealt them, and they have little or no control over how much revenue the state will collect in any given year; therefore, the law does not apply to them when they are dealt a bad financial hand.  That is all well and good, and there may be truth in those claims, but if educators are to buy that, shouldn’t educators be allowed to play by the same rules?

For example, teachers are expected to be accountable for the progress of their students regardless of the hand they are dealt.  It does not matter if a child comes to them weak, lethargic, bruised, or broken, teachers are still held accountable for each and every child’s success in the classroom.  It does not matter that they have little or no control over the physical and mental condition not to mention the preparedness of the children who walk into their classroom each year.  Regardless of the conditions, they are responsible for growing children no matter where they might fall along the learning continuum.  Therefore, if educators are to accept the legislative mindset that the law requiring full funding of MAEP does not apply when there are inequities in state revenues, why shouldn’t educators be allowed a break from being held accountable for the progress of children who come to them less than physically and mentally prepared, eager, and ready to learn?  Of course with teachers, regardless of how their students come to them, overall they bust their backsides to ensure children get the nurturing and support they need to learn.  When was the last time the state legislature other than an occasional token raise busted its backside to consistently provide the nurturing and support teachers need to do their jobs?

It is a shame educators have come to such a place that they feel they have no recourse but to sue their state legislators to collect delinquent educational money that by law rightfully belongs to the children and teachers of the state.  Mississippi senators and representatives do a lot of talking about what is wrong with education in Mississippi, and they spend a lot of time and money writing laws as to how to address educational pet peeves, but when it comes to putting up money to improve education or to at least sustain it, they often ignore the very laws they have written.  So, even though caution is advisable before jumping on the lawsuit bandwagon, it is understandable that when it comes to education, people are getting tired of the lack of accountability shown year after year for education in the Mississippi senate and house, and they are ready to take whatever steps necessary to do something about it even if that means suing the state.

Nevertheless, there are some wise people who argue that the best way to settle this issue is not through lawsuits, but rather through the vote.  However, after 15 years of struggling to keep their schools afloat, educators are left wondering if their vote really counts.  Year after year, they are forced to cut their budgets just to get by, so when relief in the form of a lawsuit is dangled in front of them, they see a possible light at the end of a long dark tunnel.  It may not be the best answer to get what they have been promised, but it is better than nothing.  They may be grasping at straws, but education in Mississippi is in a financial mess, and many educators feel the time has come to do something about it whether it is by the vote or in the courts.


©Jack Linton, July 26, 2014

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