BOBBY HARRISON: Education politics helped beat Sen. Doug Davis

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The defeat of Senate Appropriations Chair Doug Davis, R-Hernando, could be a landmark event in the relationship of public education and the state Republican Party.
In recent years, that relationship has been more symbolic than anything else. In general terms, Republicans have expressed their support for public education. Public education has grinned, mumbled under its breath and continued to go to Democrats to beg for more money than the Republicans were offering.
It is rare that someone of Davis’ influence in the Legislature loses an election. But it appears that Davis lost basically because the powers that be in fast-growing DeSoto County – including elected School Superintendent Milton Kuykendall – felt he did not do enough to support funding their public schools.
During Haley Barbour’s tenure as governor, there has probably been a news conference each year at the state Capitol where local superintendents have called on additional funding for their schools. In almost every instance, there have been superintendents at the news conferences from heavily Republican counties, such as DeSoto and Madison, calling on legislators to provide more funds for schools than supported by the Republican governor and his party allies in the Legislature.
In the end, the amount of funding for the local school districts has been somewhere between the lesser amount proposed by the governor and his allies, including Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, and the larger amount supported by the Democratic-controlled House.
Those superintendents and other education leaders from those Republican-heavy areas, while lobbying for additional funds for their schools, were careful never to criticize their legislator.
The Republican legislators voted in favor of the compromise amount for public education, verbally exclaimed yet again their support of the schools and everybody went on their way.
But that changed with the Davis loss.
The affable Davis, 34, was a rising star in the Senate. He is not flashy, but has a reputation of being hard-working.
Davis was elected to the Senate in a special election in 2005. He replaced Bobby Chamberlin, a staunch public school proponent. Rumor was that the Republican Chamberlin always voted his conviction, which was often at odds with Barbour. So to get a more reliable vote in the Senate, the governor appointed Chamberlin to a vacant judgeship. Davis won the special election to replace Chamberlin and has been one of Barbour’s most reliable allies.
This past session was Davis’ first as Appropriations chair – being appointed to the post after previous Appropriations chair – Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo – was elected to the U.S. House in 2010.
Nunnelee, like Davis, always battled for a smaller amount of education funding than proposed by the House and by local school officials. But Nunnelee, like most Republican legislators in public school strongholds, such as Lee County and Tupelo, never paid a political price for taking that position. A matter of fact, Nunnelee in effect was promoted to the U.S. Congress – if that is indeed a promotion these days.
It was as if back home local school officials complained about the lack of state funding, but blamed some nebulous entity for the funding shortfall, not the local legislator who actually had a role in controlling the purse strings.
That might have changed on Aug. 2 in DeSoto County with the Davis loss.
It is too early to tell.
But one thing is for certain – if the Democrats had not controlled the House for the past eight sessions, it is safe to say local schools would have received the amount of funding proposed by Barbour in his yearly budget recommendations. That would have meant literally tens of millions of dollars less in funding over that period.
Politicians are quick to say money will not solve all the problems in education. They are right. But it also is true that Mississippi has historically been near or at the bottom in both per pupil spending and educational attainment.
Is there not a correlation?
Republicans hope to gain control of the House and maintain their advantage in the Senate during the November elections. They will win the lieutenant governor’s slot and are favored to do the same with the office of governor.
The question is what will those possible Republican successes mean for public education. We have seen what public education meant to Doug Davis.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.