Candidates running for state office are talking about a lot of different things, but in this election year there is really only one issue to consider — education.
I have always avoided single-issue voting. Politics is an exercise in compromise and a politician should be judged on the whole. But this year, education is the only essential issue in Mississippi. All other considerations are secondary. Those seeking election in 2015 should know that and voters should insist that they know that.
The problem is discerning what really constitutes support of education. After all, every candidate is “for” education. But the single point that can weed out the education supporters from the education talkers is funding. The best way to determine a position on funding education is whether a candidate supports full funding of the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the basic funding mechanism for Mississippi schools.
There really is no middle ground on education funding. The MAEP law provides a formula that determines the amount necessary to provide a basic education for Mississippi schoolchildren. Oh, some will try to offer rationalizations for not supporting adequate education funding, but they are either for full funding of schools or they are for something less — and something less is not adequate.
This is not a partisan issue. The Legislature passed the Adequate Education Act in 1997, but has only fully funded it twice. In recent years, that has led to a decline in many districts, fewer teachers, bigger classes, higher local taxes and less opportunity for children to succeed.
That has to change, and 2015 is the year to face the issue squarely.
Every incumbent legislator has a record on the issue. Check it out. For non-incumbents running for the Legislature, simply ask them, but get a “yes” or “no” answer. A candidate is either “fur it or agin it.” It doesn’t matter if they are “a product of public schools” or whether their momma was a teacher or whether they are good at shaking hands at the Friday night football games. There is a choice on fully funding schools — yes or no — and that choice should impact voters’ choices.
In fact, in the November general election, every voter in Mississippi will be able to make that choice. Voters will be asked in November to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment — Initiative 42 — that basically would require the Legislature to do its job in adequately funding education for Mississippi’s children. It would put in the constitution that the state would provide an “adequate and efficient system of free public schools.”
Some will try to confuse and muddle the issue. The Legislature already attempted to do that by offering its “alternative” to the amendment that some 200,000 people signed a petition to put on the ballot. Of course, the legislative “alternative” would give lawmakers an out if they didn’t fully fund schools. There would no way to enforce it.
Some are warning of potential budget cuts in other agencies if the Legislature has to fully fund schools. That’s one of the oldest legislative tricks in the book, seeking to divide interests and weaken support for the initiative.
Some legislative leaders are saying it will give the courts control over school funding. The courts only get involved when the law is not met, just like other constitutional issues. What it would do is give the people of Mississippi a vehicle to see that the Legislature does its job.
I have listened to the legislative leaders opposing Initiative 42 and it is hard to believe what they saying. Are they listening to themselves? Are they really asking their constituents not to support something that could mean more funding for our schools because it offends their sense of legislative authority? Oh, horror the thought that Mississippi — near the bottom in per pupil spending — would have to fully fund education for its children.
It is really quite simple. Either education is the priority, or the priority is something else. If a candidate wants to run on something else, that is fine, but Mississippi voters in 2015 should, above all, be interested in a candidate’s position on funding education. Mississippians should be doing whatever they can — at the ballot box voting on candidates or constitutional amendments or wherever — to see that the schoolchildren in Mississippi have what they need to be successful.
Fully funding schools is basic. If we can’t get that right, if we cannot truly make education the priority, not much else will matter in Mississippi’s future.
» David Hampton retired as editorial director of The Clarion-Ledger in 2012. He now teaches journalism.