BOBBY HARRISON: Despite funding increases, Mississippi sits at bottom

BOBBY HARRISON

In life, which is often unforgiving and cruel, there are winners and losers, those who are last and those who are first.

Mississippi is a proud state with many wonderful attributes. But unfortunately, we Mississippians know our share about last place.

By almost anyone's definition, the language in the Mississippi Constitution spelling out the state's commitment to education is among the weakest – if not the weakest – in the country.

But that might be OK. In many aspects of life, somebody has to be last and somebody has to be first. Somebody has to be the weakest and somebody has to be the strongest.

That’s just the way it works. The reasons in the instance of the wording of the education section in Mississippi Constitution are fairy clear. The genesis for the current education  language in the Constitution is 1960 when the state was being forced to desegregate its school system and Mississippi leaders had no interest in placing a priority on integrated schools. That is when the original commitment to education found in the 1890s Constitution was weakened.

The language was tempered in 1987 but wording remains giving the Legislature the authority to operate a public school system as it “may prescribe.” In other words, the language does not place any conditions on what type  of school system the state is required to provide.

The people who garnered the 200,000 signatures to place Initiative 42 on the ballot have as their goal strengthening the state’s commitment to public education by mandating an “adequate and efficient” school system.

The offshoot of that goal, they hope, is full funding of local school districts, which have been underfunded $1.7 billion since 2008 and $200 million for the current school year.

Contrary to the rhetoric and beliefs of some, Initiative 42, if passed, will not change our system of governance. We all should have learned in ninth grade civics that there are three separate branches of government.

The legislative makes the laws, including appropriating funds.

The executive enforces those laws.

The judiciary interprets the meanings of those laws.

Initiative 42 will not, I repeat, will not, give the judiciary powers it does not already have. Nearly every day, some court, somewhere, interprets the meaning of a law passed by a legislature, and in some instances, interprets laws created by the people in the case of citizen-sponsored initiatives.

Right now, under the current language in the Mississippi Constitution, someone can file a lawsuit claiming the state is not meeting its commitment to the local school districts. Such cases currently are in the judiciary.

But because of that watered-down commitment to public education found in the Mississippi Constitution, thanks to the anti-integration language added in 1960, it is more difficult to prove such a case in Mississippi.

In states that have stronger language in their Constitution, lawsuits, in some instances, have resulted in more funding for public education over a period of years. In some cases, these cases have not.

The fact is that a change in the Mississippi Constitution is not required for the state's leaders to make education more of a priority.

But the fact is that part of what a constitution does is outline a state's goals and aspirations.

The question is what do we want our state's most important legal document to say about the issue of education.

Do we want it to say education ranks as the priority it is in other states or do we want to say that's OK, some state has to have the weakest commitment to public education?

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or (601) 946-9931. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyHarrison9.

Recommended for you

comments powered by Disqus