Coming up in November, Mississippi’s oft-maligned and underfunded public schools get another chance with Initiative 42, a statewide referendum which would mandate funding for MAEP. Not since Jackie Robinson entered Major League Baseball has the number 42 been so divisive and problematic.
The most obvious problem for Initiative 42 is Initiative 42-A, an alternative proposal introduced in the hopes of confusing voters by Representative Greg Snowden. Thanks to House Speaker Phillip Gunn, 42-A was put on the November ballot without the usual vetting required in the past for such legislatively-introduced ballot initiatives.
Gunn is an officer for the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives that drafts state-level legislation. You can bet ALEC operatives wrote the 42-A initiative for Mr. Snowden. This powerful group does not hide its desire to crush teacher’s unions, segregate students based on income and disabilities, and dismantle public schools throughout the nation.
ALEC doesn’t want even adequate education for Mississippi’s children. Mississippi’s anti-education attitude has been fertile ground for ALEC’s implementation of an across-the-board school privatization plan and more money for their client corporations. Fully funding MAEP would only slow down ALEC’s efforts. That’s 42’s biggest problem.
42’s detractors are powerful and their PAC’s (political action committees) have deep pockets. You can bet your radio and television waves will be filled with ads imploring Mississippians to vote “Yes” on 42-A. But what’s going to be equally fun and frightening is the tactics used to convince folks to vote “No” on Initiative 42.
We have a school funding problem in this state that must be addressed or our state will continue to be 50th. Even those slight increases in K-12 education funding legislators like to brag about have not kept up with the costs associated with equipment needs, building repairs, insurance, and energy requirements.
Sadly for advocates of 42, MAEP is the best we can offer our schools and our children for now. They know it is still not good enough. MAEP’s very name touts its mere “adequate”-ness. The Legislature said adequate funding was sufficient for students to achieve C-level success under the 1997 MAEP law. Not too inspiring, is it?
And yet, our state legislators have refused to ensure even adequate funding to meet C-level academic standards since the MAEP passed. Only twice in the past 18 years has the legislature met adequate levels. Of course, you have to wonder if any of our lawmakers would dare dream of funding our public schools to meet “A+ level” academic standards.
Certainly not Herb Frierson, the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He has already put the fear of God into the heads of state agencies. Frierson sent out a memorandum telling them to prepare for a 7.8 percent cut in state funding if 42 passes. The memorandum, also likely drafted by ALEC operatives, has already been passed down to the presidents of our state universities.
Rodney Bennett, President of the University of Southern Mississippi, made sure to pass along the fear of 42 to his faculty and staff. The highlight of his ridiculously long missive is “…all non-k-12 state-supported institutions (including universities) will be significantly adversely impacted if the November referendum passes.”
Yes, Dr. Bennett actually wrote “significantly adversely” in a letter to USM faculty and staff. Translation: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Bennett may only be regurgitating the spew IHL regurgitated from ALEC. We shall see if our other university presidents become similar mouthpieces. Anyone with a college degree knows our legislature will continue to bleed our universities dry whether 42 passes or not. But, you don’t have to worry about any cuts to those university president salaries. These guys have no compunction taking hefty raises while encouraging faculty and staff to do more with less. Still, for a university president to publicly oppose adequate funding for K-12 programs in a state like ours gives a pretty good indication of who runs the circus.
There are bigger forces calling the shots. For instance, four years ago, after being named Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Herb Frierson seemed sincere in his desire to strengthen public education in the state. As the new money guy in the House he told a group of superintendents and principals, “I promise you when things get better I’m going to take care of you.”
Things are better financially. But with the recent court ruling on public school funding, the legislature can continue to ignore MAEP. Chairman Frierson, under the able direction of his ALEC Overlords, is now free to “take care” of them alright. If 42 fails, he can deep-six public school education.
When folks like Frierson start pitting state employees against our state’s children, it illustrates how scummy the whole process has become. The fact that we need a public referendum to decide whether to adequately educate our children is already sad enough.
But 42 gives ordinary Mississippians a chance to fight the power of big money that effectively owns and operates our state representatives. 42 gives us a chance to stand up for, at the very least, adequate. Voting “yes” on 42 may, one day, inspire real legislative leadership when it comes to pubic education.
First, legislators need to drop the meaningless semantics of words like “adequate.” They need a transparent formula and a commitment to public school education for the long-term. They must rethink how they fund public schools. They set funding levels but it is the local districts that carry the burden. It’s why public schools with great tax bases thrive and those with no tax base fail and will continue to fail. The system of funding must be more evenhanded for the sake of all children and our future.
Make meaningful deals with districts around the state. Convince each county to hire one set of school administrators for all of their schools: one superintendent, one school board. Cut those overpaid and redundant positions, the mounds of red tape, but make sure that we have the highest salaries for our teachers and the best classroom materials for our students. Base teacher recruiting on locating and hiring the best, not settling for the cheapest or for those sweet Teach for America kids who cost next to nothing. God bless ’em, at least, their hearts are in the right place.
Even if 42 should somehow pass, it is doubtful our legislators will ever provide our public schools with much beyond “adequate.” They and other state leaders send their kids to those good public schools or expensive private schools. It means nothing to them when people complain about our being 50th in public school education. It’s not their children or grandchildren. Most of them look at it as another opportunity to waste more money on private prison contracts. They expect to privatize our public schools to ALEC specifications, and so the disparity between the haves and have-nots in this state grows ever greater.
In any case, don’t fear 42 even if your legislator does. And if you are confused on whether to vote for Initiative 42 or 42A, you only have to remind yourself that the “A” in 42-A stands for ALEC. Or maybe you can think of a better word to associate with our legislators.
» David Dallas is a political writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. He worked for former U.S. Sen. John Stennis and authored Barking Dawgs and A Gentleman from Mississippi.