EDITORIAL: MAEP lawsuit threat is counterproductive

Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove deserves a lot of credit for his staunch support of public education through the years.

As a state senator and lieutenant governor, Musgrove was instrumental in development and passage of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and many other initiatives to improve Mississippi’s public schools. As governor, he guided a major teacher pay raise bill to passage. Few elected officials have been as committed to improving the plight of Mississippi’s schoolchildren.

That said, Musgrove’s current approach to the problem of underfunded schools in Mississippi is misguided. As a primary MAEP architect, his frustration with the Legislature’s refusal to follow the legal funding formula in all but two years since the program’s inception is understandable. We share that frustration. But a lawsuit against the state to restore up to $1.5 billion that schools have been shortchanged, which Musgrove and other attorneys are now proposing, is the wrong course.

First, were the lawsuit to prevail, the state would face an enormous financial burden that could imperil its ability to adequately fund education in the long run. Efforts to improve education funding ought to be focused on the future, not the past.

Second, the idea of lawyers greatly benefiting – theoretically up to $375 million, with a 25 percent cut of a $1.5 billion payoff – from funds that were supposed to go to educate schoolchildren just doesn’t seem right. Nor does the idea of a 10 percent contingency fee going to school board attorneys in districts that sign up for the lawsuit. That’s a built-in incentive for those attorneys to persuade board members to join the suit.

At the very least, it’s politically unhelpful – even harmful – to those advocating full funding of education through either the direct means of constituent pressure on legislators and legislative candidates or the proposed constitutional amendment to phase it in without a tax increase over the next several years.

The state’s revenue picture is improving. It will become harder next year and in succeeding years to use the “we can’t afford it” excuse not to follow the law on school funding. There needs to be a full-fledged push to make it happen.

Public education advocates in Mississippi have more palatable options to make full funding of MAEP a reality without the politically damaging prospect of a huge financial hit for the state that would also be a boon for lawyers. Musgrove has been right on most education matters, but not on this one.