Ballot initiative would bolster MAEP funding

news_education_greenBy Chris Kieffer

Daily Journal

Mississippi voters may have an opportunity in 2015 to say whether the state should fully fund its public schools.

A newly-formed organization has filed language with the Secretary of State’s Office for an initiative that would require it to do so.

Now, members must gather enough signatures to get it on the ballot in November 2015.

“Because I am a public education supporter, I’ve been interested in changing the state Constitution to require the Legislature to fund a good system of public schools,” said Jackson attorney Luther Munford, who filed the initiative language on behalf of the advocacy group Better Schools, Better Jobs.

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program is the formula passed in 1997 that determines how much funding each school district should receive. It has been traditionally underfunded, however, including a shortfall of more than $1.3 billion during the last six years. This year’s appropriation is more than $250 million below what the formula requires.

The state’s constitution leaves little recourse if legislators don’t fund MAEP, Munford said. The initiative would change that.

It would require Mississippi to use money from economic growth to fill the void. Its language says at least 25 percent of new growth of general fund revenue would go into MAEP over a period of years until it was fully funded. It does not require a new tax.

“The funding shortfalls that have occurred are doing serious damage to public education,” said Claiborne Barksdale, CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute and a member of the effort. “This is a conservative approach by only calling for funding increases when we have growth.”

Before it can be placed on the ballot, supporters must collect the signatures of nearly 108,000 registered voters before Oct. 1, including more than 21,000 from each of the five old Congressional districts.

The initiative will ask voters if the state should be “required to provide for the support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools.”

Better Schools, Better Jobs was formed in January and later became a political action committee to work in support of the initiative’s passage. Its supporters also include former Mississippi Secretary of State Dick Molpus, DeSoto County School District Superintendent Milton Kuykendal, Madison County Superintendent Ronnie McGehee and parents spread in different regions throughout the state.

“This is kind of an ad hoc effort, with a lot of us who have been working on and off on education issues for a long time,” Molpus said. “A number of us felt like if we were going to permanently change Mississippi, we needed to put in the Constitution where every child had adequate access to an education.”

Beth Stone, former president of the Tupelo School Board, said she became involved after seeing difficulties school districts had in planning because of their uncertainty over funding.

“It is so difficult for these schools to prepare short term or long term when they have no idea how much money they will receive or whether they will be able to keep programs going,” she said.

Molpus estimated that, if the initiative passed, it would take six to eight years to fully fund public schools.

Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said on Tuesday he hadn’t yet seen the initiative’s language. He noted that it could make it difficult to fund other new programs, including educational ones outside the K-12 funding formula, and that he planned to make a big push toward MAEP funding next year.

“I’d have to look at the language because it means everything,” Tollison said of the initiative. “I’m hopeful we can reach full funding before six years.

“We came out of the greatest recession since the Great Depression. We’ve had good revenue growth and hopefully it sets us up for a push next year.”

Local superintendents said they were excited about the effort.

“A constitutional amendment is the best solution that has been presented in a long time for adequate funding,” Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden said.

“We need to give this our strongest support and jump on this movement immediately. It’s nice we have a group in our state that is taking a courageous stand for education.”

Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks said the state is working hard to increase its standards but that it is difficult to meet those standards without funding.

“Full funding would allow districts across the state to be able to go above and beyond to bring student achievement levels up to meet the expectations of the state,” he said.

Barksdale stressed that the effort was bipartisan. He said improving Mississippi’s school will require more than funding and noted efforts are also being made to increase quality and accountability.

“This is a multi-front war, but funding is clearly critical, as it is with any enterprise,” Barksdale said.

chris.kieffer@journalinc.com