JACKSON – Even as legislative leaders contemplate rewriting the Mississippi Adequate Education school funding formula, the state Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on whether legislators are violating the law by not fully funding the formula.
Oral arguments are set before the state’s highest court for May 17 in a lawsuit filed by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and others on behalf of 21 school districts, including Clay County, Prentiss County and Okolona from Northeast Mississippi.
The Musgrove lawsuit is trying to accomplish two goals:
- To force the Mississippi Legislature to fully fund the Adequate Education Program going forward.
- To recoup for the school districts filing the lawsuit the amount they have been underfunded since 2008. Statewide, all local school districts have been underfunded $2.1 billion since 2008.
The Adequate Education Program, passed in 1997, is the mechanism that provides state funds to local school districts for their basic operation. The formula generates a set amount of money for operation that is provided through both state and local funding. The poorer the school district, the larger percentage of that total is provided by the state.
Legislative leaders, specifically House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, have announced their intentions to rewrite the landmark MAEP funding formula. But they were unable to accomplish that goal during the 2017 legislative session and said they would do so in special session. But last week, Nathan Wells, the speaker’s chief of staff, said the Adequate Education Program rewrite would not be part of the special session Gov. Phil Bryant has called for June 5.
Wells most likely has knowledge of conversations related to the upcoming session, but in reality the final decision on the special session agenda rests solely with the governor.
In the meanwhile, the school funding lawsuit has continued quietly behind the scenes. Musgrove, one of the primary architects of the passage of the Adequate Education Program during his tenure as lieutenant governor from 1996 until 2000, received considerable publicity when he filed the lawsuit in the summer of 2014.
But after Hinds County Chancellor William Singletary ruled against Musgorve in 2015 and reaffirmed that ruling in January 2016, little was heard about the lawsuit. But work on the lawsuit has continued, resulting in the upcoming oral arguments before the nine-member Supreme Court.
Musgrove points to a 2006 bill signed into law by former Republican Gov. Haley Barbour that stated MAEP “shall” be fully funded.
“It is plain. It is simple. It is not ambiguous,” Musgrove said of the law during oral arguments before Singletary. “When it is not ambiguous, to me, you take the plain language of the law.”
But the state argued that other section of the law addressed any year where the Legislature did not have the money to fully fund public education, meaning legislators left themselves options other than full funding. Plus, the state contends a legislature in one year cannot make funding mandates on legislatures in future years.
But the former governor said legislatures make mandates on future legislatures all the time and cited various examples.
In the end, the chancellor agreed with the arguments of the state, made by attorneys from the office of Attorney General Jim Hood.
Both Gunn and Bryant have jumped into the lawsuit opposing Musgrove’s position.
The state Legislature continues to underfund MAEP – $218.8 million for the upcoming fiscal year. Many blame the multiple tax cuts, removing more than $300 million yearly from the state treasury, for the state’s budget woes, making it more difficult to fully fund the Adequate Education Program.