SID SALTER: Musgrove’s zeal over full funding hasn’t waned

SID SALTER

SID SALTER

The push being spearheaded by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to gin up lawsuits against the state over the failure of the Mississippi Legislature to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) is one that is understandable if one simply read his Wikipedia entry on his political views on education.

That information makes clear that Musgrove indeed played a leading role – perhaps the leading role – in guiding the MAEP package to legislative passage while serving as lieutenant governor in 1997.

Musgrove is one of Mississippi’s leading experts on how the process of funding public education is supposed to work as opposed to how it actually works. His interest in this lawsuit is borne out by a lifetime of pro-public education and political activism.

MAEP was designed to address the thorny question of equity funding in public education – meaning that children in poor counties like Quitman or Coahoma were receiving the same quality of educational opportunity as the children in affluent DeSoto or Rankin counties were getting.

While adequate in theory, MAEP has yet to be given a credible chance to work as intended because lawmakers have only “fully funded” MAEP on two occasions since it took full legal effect in 2002 – both times in election years in 2003 and 2007. The 2003 occurrence came after Musgrove’s calculated call to “fund education first” in 2003 – which put the entire Legislature in a political bind.

So as a political combatant who invested a lot of time, effort and political capital in passing MAEP, Musgrove deserves credit for crafting the program.

But that’s where Musgrove’s “Wiki” fails to tell the whole story.

As governor, Musgrove’s budgets didn’t make funding MAEP as sacrosanct as he now does as a successful trial lawyer promoting a lawsuit to recover what he says is millions in education funding that K-12 schools have not received in years when MAEP was not fully funded. Legal fees to Musgrove and his fellow barristers could run as high as 25 percent of that foregone funding.

There also has been discussion of up to 10 percent contingency fees going to school board attorneys in districts that engage in the MAEP lawsuits. But that’s today, not the days of the Musgrove administration when the path to “fully funding” MAEP was rarely clear or politically doable.

In those days, Musgrove based his gubernatorial budgets on things like intercepting state tobacco fund payments, raiding special funds and bonding. In the 2003 gubernatorial campaign, Musgrove and the Legislature resorted to accelerating sales tax collections, intercepting the state’s tobacco fund payment, spending non-recurring special fund revenue on recurring expenses and attempting to issue bonds to pay for recurring expenses. That’s a long way from arguing that the state’s K-12 education funding formula is one that is hard and fast and can’t be ignored. Musgrove said this week that lawmakers “chose to use the word ‘shall’ in the formula and they knew what that meant.”

Musgrove believes the courts will share his analysis of exactly what the MAEP legislation means. Critics believe Musgrove’s litigation will pit K-12 education against the state’s community college and higher education in the annual legislative budget battle. That’s consistently been the case over the last 40 years when one facet of the state’s education infrastructure sought a major funding increase.

Musgrove denies that’s his intent. “My life’s work has been funding education from kindergarten through the university system. But higher education is sold short if the students they receive can’t do the work when they get there.”

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com