JACKSON—A Mississippi mother of two took on the state Legislature Thursday in a battle over school funding and won.
In November, Mississippians will vote on two ballot questions that would change the state constitution to help enforce a 1997 law to equalize school funding across the state. Although the ballot questions appear to have a similar purpose, they could have very different outcomes.
One, Initiative 42, would allow courts to force the Legislature to provide adequate funding for schools. The other, Initiative 42a, would leave those funding decisions up to the Legislature—something advocates for the first initiative say would continue the status quo that already leaves many schools across the state without enough money to fund basic services.
Adrian Shipman, a mother of two from Oxford, Miss., filed a legal objection to the second initiative last month, saying that the original wording of 42a’s title, “Should the Legislature provide for the establishment and support of free public schools without judicial enforcement?” is misleading. On Monday, a lawyer that Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Phillip Gunn hired filed court documents on behalf of the entire Mississippi Legislature, which passed the competing initiative, to dismiss Shipman’s suit.
Circuit Court Judge Winston Kidd denied the lawmakers' motion to dismiss and ruled that Shipman’s objection is valid.
In her suit, Shipman asked to change the title of the Legislature’s alternative initiative so that it clearly differentiates the two ballot questions. Judge Kidd chose a new title, based on four options Shipman’s attorney presented. Now, voters will see this question on the ballot: “Should the Legislature establish and support effective public schools, but not provide a mechanism to enforce that right?”
Under state law, the judge’s decision cannot be appealed.
“I felt like the alternative was clouding the issue,” Shipman said. “I felt like it wasn’t clearly spelled out, and we wanted our Legislature to be held accountable so they will be required to uphold the law, which is to fully fund education for our children.”
Last summer, advocacy group 42 For Better Schools (formerly Better Schools, Better Jobs) canvassed the state to gather enough signatures to have an initiative put on the November 2015 ballot. If it passes, Initiative 42 will require a change to the state’s constitution mandating that the Mississippi Legislature fully fund public schools. The ballot measure, titled “Should the state be required to provide for the support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools?” would give Mississippi’s chancery courts the power to enforce funding levels.
After Initiative 42 earned its spot on the ballot, legislators responded by passing Alternative Measure 42A. Shipman and other public-school advocates in Mississippi said the wording in the lawmaker’s measure title hid its true purpose: to avoid any oversight of the Legislature’s decisions about school funding. And, because the title was so similar to the original initiative’s title, it could have confused voters, Shipman said.
“It’s very simple, (Initiative) 42 requires the state to fully pay its promised part of K-12 funding, but (Alternative Measure) 42A does nothing,” Patsy Brumfield, communications director for 42 For Better Schools said. “Its sole purpose is to confuse voters into killing 42.”
Michael Rebell, a lawyer who has been involved in school funding lawsuits in other states and who is executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University (The Hechinger Report is an independent entity of Teachers College), said there is a “world of difference” between the two ballot questions. The citizen’s initiative is “a pretty strongly worded constitutional amendment,” he said, but the legislature’s version purposefully weakens the amendment’s language by leaving out the words “adequate and efficient.”
“We’re just trying to make sure that the voter fully understands what the constitutional amendment is all about,” James Keith, Shipman’s lawyer said. “The legislature has tried to confuse this issue and complicate this issue.”
Mississippi’s public schools receive funds from the state through a formula called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP. The purpose of the formula, which the Legislature passed in 1997, is to provide a level amount of money to all public schools so that every child receives at least an adequate education. Lawmakers have only fully funded MAEP twice, and economic experts estimate that the Mississippi state government has underfunded its schools by more than $1.3 billion since 2008.
Shipman said she filed the appeal because she felt the children of the state deserve better. Now, she hopes “voters will more clearly understand what they’re voting for and, hopefully, vote to require our Legislature to fully fund education and the debate will end.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in Mississippi.