TUPELO – An effort to force a vote on school funding in Mississippi is gaining momentum, a representative said on Friday.
Better Schools, Better Jobs seeks to allow voters to decide on an amendment to the State Constitution to require Mississippi to fully fund its public schools. It has filed language with the Secretary of State’s office and must collect about 107,000 signatures before Oct. 1 in order to have the initiative on the November 2015 ballot.
“Many people across the state are saying this is the most important movement for education in Mississippi since the Education Reform Act of 1982,” said K.C. Grist, the organization’s field director for the First Congressional District.
Grist was the keynote speaker during Friday’s meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Tupelo.
The effort has already garnered “tens of thousands” of signatures, said communications director Patsy Brumfield. Many of those were collected at school graduations, award ceremonies and teacher meetings.
Grist said Friday volunteers would seek signatures at festivals and fairs during the summer and also would attend back-to-school events. She asked if any Kiwanis members wanted to volunteer to collect signatures.
The initiative would impact the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the formula passed in 1997 that determines how much funding each school district should receive. Through written into law, it has been traditionally underfunded, including a shortfall of more than $1.3 billion during the last six years. This year’s appropriation is $257 million below what the formula requires.
Together, the Tupelo and Lee County School Districts have been underfunded by more than $35 million during the past six years, Grist said.
The initiative would add more teeth to require legislators to follow that formula. Better Schools, Better Jobs is proposing for the state to use money from economic growth to fill the void.
It calls for at least 25 percent of new growth of general fund revenue to go into MAEP over a period of years until it was fully funded. Thus, it does not require a new tax or for money to be deducted from other agencies.
Grist called this effort “a last, best hope” to get more funding for the state’s schools.
“As a parent and a product of public schools in Mississippi, I want my children to have the best opportunities available,” Grist said. “I want them to be able to compete with children from other states and other countries, and without adequate funding, I don’t see that that is possible.”