BOBBY HARRISON: Referendum vs. lawsuit battle lines forming

BOBBY HARRISON

BOBBY HARRISON

An unusual rift has developed between groups that purport to have in common the support of Mississippi’s public education system.

Currently, there is a group called Better Schools, Better Jobs garnering signatures in hopes of placing on the November 2015 ballot an initiative calling for the eventual full funding of public education.

This group, which includes many prominent Mississippians, such as former Secretary of State Dick Molpus and many others, opposes a lawsuit against the state by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to recoup $1.5 billion local school districts have been underfunded since 2008. Musgrove is not keen on the Better Schools, Better Jobs effort, saying in effect cautionary language in the initiative will make it difficult to achieve full funding for the local school districts even if its passes.

Both groups say full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program is their goal.

MAEP was passed in 1997. It was designed to increase state funding for all local school districts with property poor districts receiving more state monies to ensure an “adequate level” of funding for all schoolchildren.

Its passage was hailed as a landmark event in the state and garnered Mississippi a great deal of positive comments nationally by those who follow public education issues.

It was supposed to be fully enacted in 2003. It was fully funded that year and one other – in 2007.

It is a fact that there would be no MAEP without Ronnie Musgrove. He worked for its passage as a state senator and guided it to passage as lieutenant governor in 1997. As governor in 2003, he ensured that it was fully funded as it was supposed to be. He was defeated for re-election later that year.

We will never know if it would have been fully funded had Musgrove won re-election. But if history is any indication, Musgrove would have found a way.

Many now are saying Musgrove’s lawsuit will harm the efforts of those pushing for the initiative to amend the Constitution in a manner to make full funding of MAEP an eventual certainty.

It should be pointed out that many important public policy questions have been decided by lawsuits.

Two regarding education jump to the forefront in Mississippi.

In the 1980s, north Mississippi school districts sued the state (Papasan vs. Allain) because those systems were getting less money than those in other parts of the state. The reason that those school districts were getting less money is that they did not have 16th Section land set aside where the proceeds would be used for the support of the local school systems.

Those school districts in 23 counties, including most of those in Northeast Mississippi, pursued a lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court, resulting in a settlement with the state that led to more equal funding.

The Ayers college desegregation suit, which claimed historically black universities in the state received less funding than other public universities, also resulted in a settlement with the state and more funding for those predominantly minority schools. The point is that because of a lawsuit north Mississippi school districts and historically black universities are better off. And it was done without the state going into bankruptcy as some predict will happen if the Musgrove lawsuit prevails.

Mississippi did not have the initiative process when Papasan and Ayers were filed.

Would the initiative process have been a better way to go than lawsuits filed by the north Mississippi counties that did not have 16th Section land and by the historically black universities?

Who knows.

But the case could be made that both sides – Musgrove and Better Schools, Better Jobs – would be better off focusing on their mission and less on others trying to achieve the same ultimate goal – full funding of public education.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’sCapitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (601) 946-9931 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.