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Mississippi Voters Reject Guaranteed Public School Funding

Walton Elementary second-grader Janiya Smith asks to be called on at the Jackson, Miss., school. Voters in the state rejected an initiative to increase funding for Mississippi's public schools.
Rogelio V. Solis
Walton Elementary second-grader Janiya Smith asks to be called on at the Jackson, Miss., school. Voters in the state rejected an initiative to increase funding for Mississippi's public schools.

Voters in Mississippi have rejected a citizen-led constitutional amendment that would have increased funding for public education. The public schools in the poorest state in the nation have been underfunded and underperforming for years.

Initiative 42 sought to change the state constitution by guaranteeing an "adequate and efficient system of public schools," through judicial oversight of legislative spending decisions.

According to unofficial polls, the amendment failed to get a majority, losing by about 30,000 votes. Supporters, though, believe it was a tricky ballot that led Initiative 42 to fail.

"The confusion with the ballot caused folks just not to know what to do," said Patsy Brumfield, communications director of 42 for Better Schools.

Tuesday's ballot required voters to answer two questions in order to approve the measure. The first asked whether Mississippians wanted to amend the constitution. The second asked if they preferred 42 or an alternative initiative with very similar wording crafted by Republican lawmakers earlier this year.

"When you look at that up and down vote, we actually won that vote," Brumfield said in regards to the choice between 42 and the alternative.

Conservative lawmakers in the state, however, are hailing the defeat of 42 as a victory.

School funding is currently at the sole discretion of the Legislature, and many Republicans saw the initiative as a dangerous transfer of power away from elected officials in favor of the courts.

"Look at the proposed change: the first thing they do is delete the words 'the Legislature,' " said Philip Gunn, the Republican speaker of the House, speaking against the amendment at a recent campaign stop. "Now the Legislature is the body through which the voter has a voice in his government, and the first thing this proposal does is take the Legislature out of the picture."

Throughout the campaign, opponents of 42 stuck to that message, even releasing a series of ads claiming a liberal judge would move money away from "good schools" and "put it other places." Critics were also vocal about concerns that the language of the amendment would open the state up to numerous lawsuits, as well as budget problems that would lead to increased taxes to pay for funding, or layoffs across the government.

Under state statute, lawmakers had the right to offer an alternative to 42, which was placed on the ballot by a statewide petition signed by nearly 200,000 registered voters. In January, lawmakers created that alternative, known as 42A. The two appeared side by side on the ballot, and even included similar wording, requiring the Legislature to provide for a system of "effective public schools."

"The Legislature felt that we had to bring forward an alternative in order to, frankly, to draw the lines between what 42 adherents were saying it would do, as opposed to what it would really do," said GOP Rep. Greg Snowden, who authored the alternative. "An 'effective' school would simply mean a school that is performing like it should, where kids learn like they're supposed to — not simply declaring victory according to the amount of money you spend, which is what 'adequate and efficient' stands for."

Despite the defeat, many public school advocates say they are going to keep up their efforts to improve funding for Mississippi's schools.

"We're going to continue to fight for adequate school resources, strong accountability and high standards and all the things that make public schools strong," said Nancy Loome of the Parents' Campaign. "We'll continue to watch that and make sure our representatives are our voice in the Legislature, and that they're doing things that are in the best interest of schoolchildren."

Copyright 2015 MPB Think Radio

Paul Boger