What is the alternative?

Published 7:00 am Saturday, February 21, 2015

State lawmakers may think that will be the question voters will be asking about the language in a proposed constitutional amendment on education funding. But voters may be asking that question in a different manner. Just what is the alternative to adequately funding education?

The Mississippi House and Senate, in a move that was obviously choreographed to be pushed through quickly to avoid close public attention, voted to offer “alternative” language to a proposed constitutional amendment that would force the state to adequately fund public education. It was approved in a vote largely along party lines with 94 legislators voting for the “alternative.”

Having to force lawmakers to do their job of adequately funding education should be enough to get voters asking questions.  Because the Legislature has not appropriated enough state money to fully fund the state education funding formula — an amount already deemed necessary in state law to adequately fund public schools — a group of education supporters went to the people this summer and gathered more than 200,000 signatures to put it on the ballot to establish an education funding requirement in the constitution.

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Instead of being concerned that more than 200,000 Mississippians are upset enough to sign petitions to make sure the Legislature does its job, the Republican legislative leadership offered “alternative” initiative language to the amendment that would not be as strong. Critics of the alternative language said in the floor debate that it obviously is designed to confuse voters.  Legislative leaders deny this, contending the alternative language will mean better schools by helping provide for performance-based funding. However, it doesn’t take an adequately educated school student to see through that one.

Here is the issue.

The Legislature in 1997 created the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to help deal with the problem of unequal school funding, a problem that was getting other states sued. It simply provided that the state would fund every district with an amount, based on a formula, to provide an adequate education for students. Simple enough, huh? Considering Mississippi’s educational needs, one would think “adequate” might be the least the state should do. But since passing that law, the Legislature – both Democratic- and Republican-led — has only provided enough money to fully fund MAEP twice. In recent years, underfunding has forced some districts to increase class sizes, eliminate teaching positions and raise taxes locally to make up the state shortfall.

School officials and parents are tired of banging their heads against the blackboard trying to get lawmakers to fully fund MAEP. There is a lawsuit to force the state to pay back districts the funds shorted over the years. And, there is this less dramatic, but equally important, state initiative in which the people could put it in the constitution that, yes, the state will do what it said it would and fund public education for its children.

The Republican leadership of the Legislature now is attempting to weaken that effort with this so-called “alternative” constitutional amendment language.

Lawmakers tend to talk to one another during the session and often can get caught up in their own political rationalizations.  But, real people in the real world don’t do “alternative” language. I suspect they see this “alternative” for what it is.

This is just the first major education vote in this election-year session. There will be others, and voters will be watching them closely. Constitutional amendments and lawsuits aside, the Legislature still must decide this year whether to fully fund MAEP.  The governor and GOP legislative leaders are offering a lot of reasons not to fully fund MAEP. But plain-speaking voters just want to know: What is the alternative?

Of course, there is no “alternative.” Lawmakers will either adequately fund public education or they won’t. They will either make education a priority or they won’t. Schools will either have the resources they need to prepare children, or they won’t. Children will either have an opportunity to succeed, or the “alternative.”

Voters could be looking for a real “alternative” choice on the ballot, but not in language on a constitutional amendment. They could just be looking for the candidates who truly support education — those who support adequately funding our schools.

David Hampton is a career journalist and former editorial director of The Clarion-Ledger. His email address is dhamp1@comcast.net.