Mississippi voters to decide how schools should be funded

Mississippi's voters decide Tuesday whether or not to amend the state's constitution to guarantee fully funded public education. Photo by Fuse/Getty Images

Mississippi’s voters decide Tuesday whether or not to amend the state’s constitution to guarantee fully funded public education. Photo by Fuse/Getty Images

Mississippi voters decide Tuesday whether or not their constitution should guarantee fully funded public schools in the nation’s poorest state.

Initiative 42 is a proposed amendment to Mississippi’s constitution that supporters say would “provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.” If the state doesn’t continue to fund public K-12 schools at these current levels, courts could enforce the amendment to get more money and resources, according to the original filing with Mississippi Secretary of State’s office.

Advocates of Initiative 42 collected about 200,000 petition signatures, roughly twice the amount needed to bring the measure for a vote. Now, voters must answer: “Should the State be required to provide for the support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools?”

This question has divided the state for months.

People on both sides of the issue allege that outside money influenced the statewide debate. Newspaper editorials and opinion columns published views from educators, business leaders and politicians about which vote is the right one for Mississippi. And during recent townhall meetings, people vented frustration about factors that feed Mississippi’s educational outcomes and rankings and how much it’ll cost to improve the state’s public schools.

Tweaking the constitution is not unheard of in Mississippi. In 2014, 88 percent of the state’s voters amended their constitution to preserve the right to hunt and fish, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But questions remain about how this change would pan out for the cash-strapped state.

In 1997, the legislature passed the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a law that produced a funding formula intended to “Ensure that every Mississippi Child” is “afforded an adequate educational opportunity.”

Julia Weaver thinks a constitutional amendment for school funding is justified because the 1997 law hasn’t been honored, she says, and that the state’s students, teachers and schools have gone too long without enough resources to move forward. A mother of two daughters enrolled in a Mississippi public school, Weaver also spearheaded a Facebook group, Fed Up with 50th, that advocates for better schools and quality of life in Mississippi.

Weaver says the school district where she lives cut staff, forcing classrooms to expand, and doesn’t have enough buses, meaning buses currently run multiple routes and children wait at bus stops before the sun rises.

“My people have been here since 1850. We’re Mississippians,” said Weaver, who lives in Ocean Springs on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. “We’re here for the long haul, and we think we can do better.”

Critics, however, say today’s legislature shouldn’t be held accountable for promises made by politicians nearly two decades ago and that the proposed amendment’s language is too vague.

One opponent is James Andrew Whitaker, an anthropology instructor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford who has written a series of newspaper columns against Initiative 42. He says it could “open hunting season on schools and their budgets.”

“Imprecise wording would give a state judge almost unlimited power to intervene in Mississippi,” Whitaker said. “Any school system could sue the state.”

The money has to come from somewhere, he said.

And Russ Latino, who directs KidsFirst Mississippi and the state’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity, says the amendment gives judges too much discretion and threatens local control of schools.

“We’re essentially creating a new veto power for the courts,” Latino said. “There are a lot of concerns I’ve got over the unintended consequences in this thing.”

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant and his fellow Republican leadership have all campaigned against the measure, the Clarion-Ledger reported.

And the state’s legislators has come out against the initiative. They produced a similarly worded and named counter amendment, Initiative 42A, that asks: “Should the Legislature provide for the establishment and support of effective free public schools without judicial enforcement?”

This is a fight for education that former Mississippi Governor William Winter has seen before.

After voters elected him governor in 1980, Winter fought to reform Mississippi public schools to pay for kindergarten for all children.

In August, he endorsed the initiative and said he thinks this latest test of the public’s will is vital for the state to improve not only its classroom but also bolster its future.

Winter explained that Mississippi today is “still cheating our young people by not providing them the kind of education that’s the birthright of every child born in the state of Mississippi.”

“Today’s education is better than it’s ever been, but still not good enough,” he said. “We’re not falling behind. We’re just staying behind.”