After House Bill (HB) 449 in 2015 and HB 49 in 2016 failed to become law and silence state educators, the Mississippi Legislature may have delivered a coup de gras with the recent passage of HB 1643, Section 44. Section 44 reads . . .
“None of the funds provided herein may be expended to make payments or transfers to the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents. Furthermore, none of the funds provided herein may be expended if any local school district expends any public funds to make payments or transfers to the Association.”
Over the years, the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents (MASS) has been a major education liaison between educators and the Mississippi Legislature. After July 1, 2016, Section 44 may put an end to that relationship, but as grave as the loss of an association devoted to promoting and improving education may be, the gravest consequence of Section 44 may well be the silencing of educator voices across Mississippi. By prohibiting payments from public funds to MASS and threatening to withhold state funds to any local district violating Section 44, the legislature fired a warning shot aimed at all state educators. They sent a strong message that if any educator dares side or speak against them, as some superintendents did during the controversial and heated Initiative 42 campaign in the fall of 2015, there will be consequences to pay.
Bill author, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R–Poplarville, made it clear Section 44 of the bill is retaliation for what he called personal attacks against state officials by state school district superintendents during the Initiative 42 campaign. He said, “When they attack people like that, they’re biting the hand that feeds them, and maybe the next time they need to think about that.” However, the record supports the problem goes much deeper than Initiative 42. Prior to the Initiative, House Education Chairman, John L. Moore introduced HB 449 in the 2015 legislative session that threatened to penalize educators $10,000 dollars for exercising their freedom of speech on school related issues. He renewed his effort to silence educators in the 2016 legislative session when he introduced HB 49, which was basically a repeat of his failed 2015 bill. The objective of both bills was to silence the voice of educators across the state who spoke in protest against state legislators who refused to honor the law and fully fund education.
Frierson said, “There’s very little trust between the leadership and school administrators and most of it goes back to the 42 campaign.” He is right; little trust exists between state leadership and educators in general, and the vindictiveness of HB 1643, Section 44 will do nothing to build trust between the two factions. The distrust between the two, which began long before Initiative 42, will only grow deeper as a result of such pettiness. This rift began when state legislators repeatedly went back on their word to fully fund MAEP (Mississippi Adequate Education Program), and refused to work and listen to state educators on education issues. This divide escalated with Initiative 42 when legislators placed an alternative measure on the ballot, which confused the issue and made it difficult at best for the Initiative to pass. Trust between the two deteriorated further when legislators misled state voters with threats of budget cuts to other agencies if the Initiative passed – cuts that nevertheless became a reality after the Initiative was defeated.
HB 1643, Section 44 was a stroke of political genius. By taking a less direct route than Moore and embedding the retaliatory action against school superintendents in the appropriations bill, Frierson kept his intentions under the radar as a part of the greater bill. However, the impact on educators will be everything Moore hoped for, if not more. Section 44 is most likely a death blow to MASS, and due to fear of reprisals against them, it may likely usher the end of educators speaking out for fairness, integrity, and common sense on education issues. As Frierson would say, “If it does, it does.” After all, why should free speech stand in the way of the greater power of the state legislature?
It is ironic some of the exact things the Mississippi leadership detests most about the federal government are forced on Mississippi citizens by the state leadership. They detest the federal government usurping the power of local government, yet Section 44 tells local school districts how to spend local dollars. They openly despise Common Core Standards because they argue the federal government bullied schools into using the standards or risk losing federal funds. Doesn’t Section 44 do the same when it threatens to withhold state funds from local school districts that fail to take part in the legislature’s vendetta against the superintendent’s association? It appears the Mississippi Legislature may be as power hungry if not more so than the federal government they rail so vehemently against.
Isn’t it also ironic America’s most basic right, free speech, is the right many Mississippi legislators want to strip from state educators? In the United States of America (Mississippi is a part of the United States), instead of reprisals against free speech, shouldn’t there be reprisals against those who advocate such? However, retaliation against either side will not resolve this issue. As Frierson said the issues boil down to trust, and at this time neither the legislature nor state educators trust the other to do their jobs effectively.
After the defeat of Initiative 42, Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves spoke about pulling both sides together as a family. That has not happened. All anyone needs to do is examine such bills as HB 49 and Section 44 of HB 1643 to see educators are not regarded as family by the state legislature. If they were family, legislators would be more inclined to listen to them, and not try to silence them. However, maybe Mr. Reeves’ words were for show only, and what Frierson, Moore and many others in the legislature really want is for educators to prostrate themselves before them. If so, who is next – small business owners? Ministers? Simply put, Section 44 is nothing less than heavy handed tyranny that should scare all Mississippians into waking up!
©Jack Linton, June 4, 2016