JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers on Monday proposed alternate wording for a state constitutional referendum on school funding, raising the likelihood of a showdown on the House floor as early as Tuesday.
The proposed language was approved 8-4 by the House Constitution Committee, said Chairman Scott Delano, R-Gulfport. House Concurrent Resolution 9, sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tem Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, asks voters to approve an amendment that would require that the Legislature provide an “effective system of free public schools.”
That’s a switch from the language placed on the ballot after nearly 117,000 registered voters signed a petition. The ballot language calls for “an adequate and efficient system” of schools. It’s designed to force lawmakers to stop appropriating less than the amount called for by the state’s school funding formula, setting up grounds for a lawsuit if they don’t. Over the past seven years, Mississippi has fallen $1.5 billion short of the amount mandated by its formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.
If lawmakers agree, both original language and the Legislature’s language would appear on the November ballot. Voters could choose one or the other, or reject both.
Supporters of the petition have been raising the alarm for weeks that any alternative, no matter what it says, is an attempt to sabotage the vote. That’s because any proposal must win a majority of total votes cast on an issue and at least 40 percent of total votes in the election. With voters in favor of a change dividing between two possible alternatives, it makes it less likely that either will reach the 40 percent threshold.
“Any alternative is a direct assault on the amendment to fund K-12. This is a fraud perpetrated on those … people who signed that petition,” said Patsy Brumfield, a spokeswoman for Better Schools Better Jobs, a political action committee that has raised more than $1 million to support the petition. “It’s a dirty political trick to confuse the voters and kill the amendment, which merely seeks to require the Legislature to do its job.”
Those who support the House plan say that focusing on what goes into the school system, like money, is less effective than focusing on what comes out.
“What we want is an effective system of education as measured by attainment and achievement,” Delano said. He downplayed the importance of the formula, saying lawmakers were doing more good by trying to spend money outside the formula.
Snowden hit some of the same points last week in a speech to the Mississippi Economic Council.
“You don’t focus on inputs, you focus on outputs,” he said.
It’s unclear what the Senate may propose. Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said he wasn’t sure of plans in the upper house.
Both versions would wipe out language that limits legislative support to what “conditions and limitations as the Legislature may prescribe,” wording that was inserted to allow lawmakers to shut down public schools in the face of integration orders.
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