Initiative 42, a conservative approach to achieve adequate funding of our public schools, will be on the statewide ballot in November. Initiative 42 is endorsed by over 200,000 Mississippians and would phase in, over a five- to seven-year period, increases in state funding until such time as our K-12 schools reach a level of funding called for by current state law. I support 42 and urge that you support it.
Let me address two principal objections to the initiative.
First, some assert that 42 would require an immediate tax increase and/or an immediate cut of approximately 7.8 percent in all other state agency budgets. This assertion is not correct. The initiative petition specifies, explicitly, that funding increases are to be based on increases in general state revenues. If the economy grows in a given year and revenues increase, the petition calls for 25 percent of such increase to be used to augment the previous year’s funding. If in a given year no such increase occurs, education funding would not increase.
Based on revenue projections by the nonpartisan Mississippi Economic Policy Center, it will take approximately seven years, until 2022, to reach funding levels called for by current law. The initiative does not contemplate immediate full-funding in any form or fashion. The threats of required agency cuts or tax increases are simply inaccurate and misleading, and no one should fall for this divide-and-conquer strategy.
The second objection involves court jurisdiction. Existing state law places jurisdiction of any relevant legal challenge in Hinds County, and you may have heard opponents of 42 assert that “we don’t want a judge in Hinds County dictating our state’s education funding.” There are three flaws with this line of argument.
First, our system of government involves judicial review of legislative actions, so if someone thinks the Legislature isn’t complying with the state’s constitution, some judicial body somewhere will hear that lawsuit. That’s just the way it works and 42 doesn’t change that. Second, if the Legislature wants to, it can change existing law and place jurisdiction wherever it thinks best. Jurisdiction doesn’t have to reside in Hinds County. Finally, let’s be honest, any lawsuit under 42 will inevitably wind up in the state Supreme Court, an elected, conservative body. So, again, this jurisdictional argument is misleading.
These cries of alarm are designed to distract voters from the real issue: Is 42 necessary in order to achieve adequate funding of our public schools? I believe that the answer to that critical question is yes. I have been working on this funding issue for the past 15 years – with Democrats and Republicans – and, unfortunately, it does not appear that the state’s leaders will ever fully fund education unless we amend the state’s constitution and force them to do so.
Consider that in three of the last four years the state has had sufficient revenues to fully fund K-12 – without cutting other agency budgets – but has chosen not to do so. Since 2009, we have underfunded our schools by approximately $1.7-billion, resulting in thousands of lost teachers, outdated textbooks, unsafe school buses, unrepaired buildings. We spend less per-student in real dollars than we did in 2008!
Of course, funding alone does not guarantee success. It is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for success. The state’s leaders are to be commended for the steps that they have taken to improve our schools – a strong charter school law, the third-grade reading requirement, the inception of meaningful pre-K programs, increased accountability. Deep, meaningful reform efforts must continue hand-in-hand with the provision of funding to get us where we need to be.
In my business life over the last 45 years, I have been responsible for the hiring and management of tens of thousands of people. The most basic, essential required skill for a successful employee is his or her ability to take information and use it effectively in performance of the task at hand. That skill requires a good education. If we fail to educate the 500,000 children who go to public school every day in Mississippi – roughly 90 percent of all children in the state – we will forever seal our fate.
Initiative 42 is a conservative, long-range step in the right direction. I hope that voters will pay attention to the real issues, not the distractions, and vote for 42 in November.