An organization called Better Schools¾tter Jobs recently filed paperwork to start the process of getting a statewide referendum. As Jackie Mader of The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education news service, reports this week (see page 8), the group aims to collect the signatures of 107,000 registered voters by Oct. 1, in hopes of putting a long-ignored issue to the people in 2015: Should the full funding of public K-12 education be a constitutional requirement?
It's an odd thing to even have to ask. In 1997, our Legislature created the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a mind-numbingly complicated formula that considers factors ranging from average daily attendance to how many kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
In the past six years alone, under a Republican-led Senate and, until 2012, a Democratic-led House of Representatives, MAEP has been shorted by more than $1 billion.
For the past few years, lawmakers have pointed to everything from the Great Recession that shrank the state treasury to questioning the validity of the formula itself as excuses for not giving schools the minimum amount of funding needed to operate.
The most democratic solution to the problem would be to vote out the people who, as far as we can tell, haven't failed to meet any of other of the state's obligations, such as paying state employees (including legislators' salaries and per diem) and even spent a little extra on tax breaks for automobile plants and Rankin County outlet malls.
Unfortunately, people tend to vote to keep their representatives so the same folks keep coming back every term, exacerbating the problem. We not only support a statewide constitutional amendment to fund public schools in Mississippi, but believe it is also time for citizens of Mississippi to look toward the ballot initiative as a tool to circumvent the do-nothing Mississippi Legislature. In addition to MAEP funding, why not also take the issue of Medicaid expansion or protecting the rights of LGBT people to patronize businesses without fear of discrimination directly to the people as well?
Of course, there are risks—the current constitutional same-sex marriage ban, voter ID requirement and embarrassing Mississippi flag are products of such referenda. But putting the question directly to voters is the reason why Personhood continually fails, legislative attempts to roll back abortion rights notwithstanding (see page 10).
Sadly, at this point, letting citizens decide—even if we don't agree with their decision—seems less risky than leaving the most important issues facing Mississippi up to the Legislature.