Public Education Lawsuit, Explained | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Public Education Lawsuit, Explained

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Courtesy Patsy Brumfield

While Better Schools Better Jobs representative Patsy Brumfield believes full funding of public schools is essential, she says an expensive lawsuit may not the most effective way to achieve the goal.

While Attorney General Jim Hood prepares his defense against former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove's lawsuit against the state for failing to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, advocates and politicians on both sides of the adequate-funding debate are criticizing the lawsuit.

The lawsuit initially included 14 school districts that would fight to recover more than $115 million that those schools were denied since 2010, which was when full funding of MAEP became mandatory under a law the Legislature passed in 2006. Since then, five more school districts joined the lawsuit, increasing the amount of money owed by the state to $134 million.

Hood has been a supporter of full funding of public education, but agreed to defend the state against Musgrove. In a statement provided by Attorney General Public Information Officer Jan Schaefer, Hood claims that the Legislature is not required to obey acts made by previous sessions. "Our research has found that courts in other states have unanimously found that, absent a contractual obligation or agreed order, acts of one legislative session cannot bind subsequent sessions," Hood said in the statement.

The state law in question states: "Effective with fiscal year 2007, the Legislature shall fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program." Since 2010, the Legislature has underfunded education by a total of $1.5 billion.

Pieter Teeuwissen, Hinds County Board of Supervisors attorney, said he understands Hood's argument on a local level, since he once argued that the actions and contracts of one board cannot bind its successor. But, he added, "I've never heard that with respect to one legislature binding another because wouldn't that mean every year they pass a law, the laws don't apply next year?"

Teeuwissen said it would make more sense for the Legislature to be required to repeal the adequate funding law rather than simply ignoring it after having been previously passed.

The Mississippi Republican Party highlighted what it deems an "out of touch" approach to education reform in a Sept. 17 action alert, which calls Musgrove's lawsuit "reckless."

Instead of expressing the GOP's position on fully funding MAEP, the statement touts the reform "championed" by Gov. Phil Bryant and Mississippi Republicans.

Ignoring funding issues, the release praises "common sense education reforms like charter school options for children stuck in failing schools, a clear rating system to tell parents how their schools are performing, and an increased focus on literacy for children struggling to read by the third grade."

But Patsy Brumfield, a Better Schools Better Jobs organizer, said full funding is essential to getting Mississippi education where it needs to be. The underfunding of Mississippi public schools, Brumfield said, is "perhaps the greatest travesty in the state of Mississippi today."

The current state of education in Mississippi contributes to the lack of good jobs in Mississippi as well as the state's poor upward mobility, Brumfield said.

Some Legislators are concerned the state does not have the appropriate funds to make the full funding of MAEP possible. House Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, said the state needs to make sure that it has continuity in funding for MAEP. That is, the state must have funding moving forward to support education in future years so that schools will get what they are promised.

"You've got to be able to know that five, six, 10 years from now that this money's here. Right now they don't know that. The money they had in 2006 is not there right now," Frierson said. "The advocates want to say, 'Well, there's been no desire.' Well that's B.S. I mean, we want to do it."

Frierson also said that full funding of MAEP could be done, but only at the expense of many other things Mississippians prioritize. "It's not as political as some people want to make it. A lot of it is just raw numbers and trying to make it work," he said.

Musgrove, however, highlights that the state has more $400 million in its "rainy day fund," and the states savings could fully fund MAEP without bankrupting the state.

Republicans who do not believe the current MAEP formula will be successful aren't the only ones who oppose Musgrove's lawsuit. Brumfield said the lawsuit is not the most effective way to ensure schools get proper funding.

"While we certainly agree with the goal ... we just don't think this is the way to go, so we would oppose its success. As much as we would like to see school districts get the money that they have been underfunded the past 10 years, that just presents a real financial dilemma for the state of Mississippi," Brumfield said.

Like others who oppose the lawsuit—including Gov. Bryant, who has said 25 percent of the money collected for the school district would be pocketed by lawyers—Brumfield cites legal fees that a lawsuit against the state would incur.

"Any damages that might occur would come straight out of the taxpayer's pockets, and education is not getting the money that it needs right now no less to have to pay some of it to lawyers," Brumfield said.

Instead, a constitutional amendment—which advocates are now pushing to get on the ballot under Initiative 24—would require the Legislature to fully fund MAEP while avoiding extra fees. The amendment is a "much better way to solve many years of problems, not a lawsuit," Brumfield said.

Right now, Brumfield said, Mississippi's constitution does not make full funding of public schools mandatory. Instead, the state's obligation to pay for education is at the Legislature's discretion. The entire body of education law says that the state will maintain and support a free system of public education—so long as the state can afford it.

"I kind of refer to that as the 'if we feel like,' phrase, and they have not felt like it in the past 17 years," Brumfield said.

Supporters must collect 108,000 certified signatures before Oct. 1 for the initiative to appear on the ballot, and Brumfield said they are very close to achieving their goal. They will then present it to the secretary of state. This, Brumfield believes, is the only way "to put enough teeth in the law to force the Legislature to find a way to pay."

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