Sid Salter columnist 1/13/2015

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Salter: Legislators unlikely to give up control in MAEP battle

STARKVILLE – The brewing battle over what the Mississippi Legislature does with the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) conflict will be defined both by numbers and by language.

Proponents of the Better Schools, Better Jobs group are pushing a ballot initiative to amend Section 201 of the Mississippi Constitution to require that the state provide and the Legislature fully fund an “adequate and efficient” public school system.

As to language, the state’s initiative and referendum law presents a clear obstacle to the constitutional amendment proponents and it’s all about language.

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Since 1993, Mississippians have had the option of taking the power away from the Legislature and changing the state constitution as they deem appropriate when the Legislature refuses to act. The process is called initiative and referendum and it isn’t easy.

Perhaps the hardest hurdle is this – once the petitions are received and reviewed and pass muster as this one has, the Legislature must have a chance to review the initiative’s wording. If legislators don’t agree with the amendment’s wording, the law allows them to offer an amendment that the Legislature approved.

That’s the genesis of the so-called “Hands Off 42” movement that seeks to shame legislators from exercising that option. It’s a movement that virtually certain to fail. The Legislature will almost surely offer an alternative amendment to the voters.

Of course, language isn’t the only factor in the MAEP fight. Numbers will play a huge role – as if a lot of competing numbers regarding actual education funding, possible legal fees and the cost of competing needs in state government.

Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove wants Mississippi to sue its way to so-called “full funding” of MAEP. Musgrove has filed a lawsuit seeking to force the state to pay millions to 19 state school districts that the former governor claims the state has underfunded based on the MAEP formula.
Opponents will talk about legal fees – a number that undermines Musgrove’s arguments that the lawsuits are the result of a lifetime commitment to public education. It’s also worthy of note that MAEP was only “fully funded” once during his tenure as governor.

MAEP was created in 1997 in reaction to lawsuits nationally from education advocacy groups which were successfully suing states on grounds that it was unconstitutional that students living in poorer school districts were being denied the same public education advantages being afforded to students in more affluent districts.

But in political reality, Mississippi has only “fully funded” MAEP twice and both times were in election years. The Legislature “tweaked” MAEP to provide additional funds for so-called “high growth” school districts in 2005. It was a fairly easy sell in the Legislature. Why? Because most of those “high growth” school districts were located in the state’s top 10 Republican counties.
But numbers also will provide ammunition to those seeking a more robust level of support for K-12 education in Mississippi.

MarketWatch writer Thomas C. Frohlich analyzed education funding among the 50 states and listed Mississippi as fifth from the bottom on the states that spend the least on education. Frohlich identified per pupil spending at $8,164 from total education spending of $4.5 billion (18th lowest in the nation – and that in a state with the nation’s lowest median household income at $37,095).

Frohlich observed: “Nearly 18 percent of Mississippi elementary and secondary school funding came from the federal government, more than every state except for Louisiana. More than 19 percent of households in the state used food stamps in the 12 months prior to 2012, second-most in the nation. Education Week gave Mississippi an “F” in K-12 student achievement last year, making it the only state to receive a failing grade. Just 26.1 percent of fourth graders, and 21.3 percent of eighth graders, in the state were proficient in math, both among the worst nationwide.

Bottom line? The Legislature is unlikely to surrender control of the budgetary process without a fight – and a big one at that.

(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at