[Note: Recently a retired school teacher responded to one of my blogs expressing her concerns with Initiative 42. She had concerns with what she felt was ambiguous wording in the Initiative, putting too much power in the hands of a single judge, and the possibility of taxes being raised if Initiative 42 passes. Since there are others who are still expressing some of the same concerns, I decided to use my response to her as today’s blog.]
Thank you for taking time to read the blog and comment. As a retired school teacher myself, I could feel and understand the angst in your words as you struggle with the Initiative 42 issue. From the passion and compassion of your words, it is obvious why teachers such as you will not have to wait in line in heaven to get their wings. You have every right to be concerned, but I will do my best to make you feel more at ease about Initiative 42. I thank you for your years of service as a teacher, and your continued attention to education issues.
Concern #1: Vagueness in the wording of Initiative 42 and the use of “state” in place of “legislature.”
The biggest differences between the wording of Initiative 42 and the current wording of Section 201 of the Mississippi State Constitution are two words “state” replacing legislature and the word “adequate.” Under Initiative 42, “legislature” is being replaced by “state” for one reason and that is that for years education funding has been left in the hands of the state legislature, and other than voting for their legislative representatives, the people have had little or no voice in funding education. In theory, that should not be a problem since elected officials are supposed to uphold the law as well as uphold the will of the people who voted them into office. However, sometimes when elected representatives arrive in Jackson, something mysterious seems to happen, they magically become “all knowing” with the belief they have the freedom to do as they choose. For example, ignoring the law and not fully funding education according to the MAEP formula. Of course, this is not a recent phenomenon. The reluctance of state legislators to make education a priority has been a stain on Mississippi for countless decades.
In 1997, the Legislature finally passed a law that many hoped would put to rest the education funding issue. The 1997 law required the Legislature to “adequately” fund education, and created the MAEP formula as the measurement of “adequate” spending for K-12 public school education. Over the next 18 years, the Legislature honored that law twice. They ignored/broke the law 16 out of 18 years at the expense of public school children and teachers across Mississippi. Therefore, in 2015, Initiative 42, supported by over 188,000 citizens, was placed on the ballot to address the legislators’ reluctance to honor the law.
In Initiative 42, the word “legislature” was changed to “state” to make legislators accountable to the people. Without that change the legislators would remain accountable only to themselves except once every four years when they were up for election or re-election. Basically, they say whatever it takes to be elected, and once elected, they do as they please. However, Initiative 42 makes them accountable in non-election years as well. The Initiative does not usurp the power of the voter, but rather adds to the power of the voter to ensure elected representatives do their job and follow the law even between elections. Changing the word “legislature” to “state” allows the people to have recourse when the Legislature fails to perform its duties as required by law. Under Initiative 42, for probably the first time in history, state politicians will be held accountable for their actions or lack of action.
Concern #2: Ambiguity of the word “adequate” in Initiative 42, and the word “funding” not in Initiative 42.
There is no ambiguity in the use of the word “adequate” in Initiative 42. An “adequate” education or “adequate” funding was established by the 1997 MAEP law. Under the law, the MAEP formula is used each year to determine each school district’s “adequate” MAEP allotment (funding). MAEP covers teacher and district employee salaries, retirement and insurance, instruction materials, operational costs, transportation, and add on programs such as special education, vocational education, gifted education and alternative education. The formula itself reads: ADA (Average daily attendance) X base student cost + at risk component (free and reduced lunch) – local contribution + 8% guarantee + add on programs = MAEP funding for the school district. The 8% guarantee in the formula is used only if needed to ensure the school district receives funding of at least 8% over what the district received in 2002. If you stop and think about the escalated cost of living and ever rising cost of doing business over the past 13 years, and consider the baseline funding for education in Mississippi is based on funding for 2002 + 8%, you should be able to clearly see that Initiative 42 is not asking for anything excessive.
Since MAEP was established as “adequate” under the 1997 law, placing “adequate” in the amendment to Section 201 of the Mississippi Constitution ensures the Legislature honors this formula. As for the word “funding” not being used in Initiative 42, the word “funding” is not used in any of the options – Initiative 42, Initiative 42A, or the current wording of Section 201 of the Mississippi Constitution. However, all three have the phrase “provide for the establishment, maintenance and support” of education, which implies funding. The word “funding” not being used in Initiative 42 is not a reason for alarm, and those who tell you that it is are simply trying to confuse the issue.
Concern #3: Mississippi is a poor state, so where will the money come from if Initiative 42 is passed?
Mississippi is a poor state, but that is even more reason for us to invest in education. The only way out of the quagmire of poverty is to have educated citizens. Through education, children who live in poverty have a chance to rise above unemployment, welfare, and minimal wage existences and adequately provide food, shelter, and clothing for their families. Education is the only chance they have for building the self-esteem and skills they need to rise above poverty!
Although Mississippi may be a poor state that does not mean Mississippi is not able to support funding education. At the end of the 2015 Mississippi Legislative session, Governor Phil Bryant, Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, and Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn all advocated for phasing out state income tax. Why would they propose such action when state income tax accounts for approximately 40% of Mississippi’s total revenue each year? How can Mississippi manage if it loses 40% of its annual revenue? Does that mean the state can afford to cut its budget by 40% and still operate efficiently? Probably not! Does that mean there is enough surplus and other revenue producing resources available to efficiently run the state government without the 40% provided by state income taxes? Probably! We know for a fact there is a surplus in the state’s “Rainy Day Fund,” so if Bryant, Reeves, and Gunn are to be believed, there are most likely other revenue producing ventures available to the state as well. Why else would they propose to eliminate 40% of the state’s revenue? The question is not can Mississippi afford to fund education; the question is does Mississippi want to fund education. Based on a state surplus as well as the proposed elimination of state income tax by state leadership, there is little doubt that reluctance to funding education is more in line with lack of motivation and will power than it is with lack of funding availability.
As for fears about the state cutting funding to other state agencies and raising taxes when Initiative 42 passes, those are scare tactics that have been used from day one by the opponents of Initiative 42. Cutting funding to other state agencies or raising taxes are being used by the Republican leadership in Jackson to confuse and divide the public on the education funding issue. These threats are coming from the same people who proposed eliminating state taxes! If Mississippi is so down and out financially that it would have to cut other agencies to fund education, what is the likelihood the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker of the House would advocate for phasing out state income taxes? Not very likely! Instead, they would be advocating raising income taxes rather than getting rid of income taxes altogether! Again, based on the actions and comments of the state’s leadership, the likelihood of cutting other agencies or raising taxes are most likely to happen only if the state Legislature decides to be vindictive when Initiative 42 passes.
Concern #4: It is dangerous to place so much power in the hands of one judge in Hinds County. No one can say for sure what will happen or not happen.
An omniscient all powerful judge in Hinds County is another scare tactic used in an effort to defeat Initiative 42. No one can say for sure what will happen, and no one can promise what will or will not happen, but here are the facts about the chancery judge:
- Funding will not go before a chancery judge if the Legislature does its job and follows the law to fund education based on the MAEP formula;
- If a funding issue is brought before a chancery judge, it will be in Hinds County because the Legislature convenes in the city of Jackson, which is in Hinds County;
- Not that it should matter, but the chancery judge will not necessarily be black. Since there are two black judges and two white judges, there will be a 50/50 chance of a black or white judge hearing the case;
- “Adequate” funding has already been established by the 1997 law, so a judge will not decide what is meant by adequate;
- The judge will not determine how or where funding will be spent. Local school districts are responsible for the distribution of funds allotted to the district by the state; and
- Any decision made by the chancery judge can be appealed to the Mississippi State Supreme Court for the final decision.
I hope I have cleared up a little of the confusion. Come November 3, people will choose to accept the status quo as good enough for Mississippi, or they will vote for accountability for state lawmakers and education funding for our children and teachers. There is no in between. In the end, the decision will be left to each individual to decide what is best for them personally, what is best for the teachers and kids in the classroom, and ultimately what is best for Mississippi’s future. The one constant that everyone must remember is that there is little hope for a better tomorrow in Mississippi without at least an “adequate” education for our children. Initiative 42 is a once in a lifetime chance for teachers, parents, and the citizens of Mississippi to make a difference in the future of our state. Hopefully, it is not a chance we will waste.
©Jack Linton, PhD, October 31, 2015