In 1997, the Mississippi Legislature passed a law promising to provide each public school district in Mississippi enough financial support to furnish an adequate education to every K-12 student. That law is called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), and has only been followed twice since it was passed. This has resulted in a shortfall of over a billion dollars since 2009. That is a billion dollars that would have provided textbooks, technology, and certified teachers. Instead, Mississippi’s students have just had to do without.
In 2014, nearly 200,000 Mississippians from every county and both political parties took a stand and signed petitions to have Initiative 42 added to the ballot on November 3, 2015. This would amend the state constitution in a way that makes public education a priority instead of an afterthought. Initiative 42 closes a loophole that has allowed the Legislature to break the MAEP law for so long.
After citizens signed these petitions, the very first thing the Legislature did when they went back into session was to pass an alternative to Initiative 42. Diane Ravitch reblogged the Hechinger Report in January 2015 quoting,
“But Republican legislators introduced an alternative amendment that was passed by the Mississippi House of Representatives in a 64-57 vote on Tuesday. It deleted any reference to making the state responsible for providing funding to schools. Pending approval from the Senate, both initiatives will go on the ballot this November, making voters choose between these two similar-sounding yet antithetical amendments.”
Betrayal by State Leaders
So, instead of listening to the citizens of Mississippi, the Legislature has placed a confusing alternative on the ballot that changes nothing. This is the first time that the Legislature has ever proposed an alternative to a citizen-led initiative.
In the time since the alternative was introduced, a bitter battle has ensued. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson asked other state agencies to submit plans for a seven percent cut in funding. Supposedly, they were to prepare for what would happen if Initiative 42 passes. The 42 For Better Schools Campaign called the budget cut directives
“the lowest, most despicable form of scare tactic politics” and vowed to “unleash the full fury of public school parents across Mississippi.”
These same state leaders that gave away $315 million in tax breaks to businesses over the last four years and voted this year to cut the budget by another $1.7 billion did not demand department heads submit budgets to reflect the services or jobs that would be cut or plans for a decrease in funding.
Many members of the state government have been openly opposing Initiative 42, claiming to have spent more on schools this year than four years ago, and spreading other misinformation about the management and success of public schools. The intensity of this fight is heightened by the fact that many of these leaders are running in political races to keep their positions. Where only a few months ago Governor Phil Bryant called Mississippi’s schools “abysmal failures,” he is now on television talking about hard-working teachers and success.
More Opposition to Initiative 42
Questionable groups, such as KidsFirst MS have emerged out of nowhere with a sudden and strong social media presence against Initiative 42. KidsFirst MS is headed by Russell Latino who supposedly quit his job at a high-paying law firm to run this organization.
Russell Latino was relatively unknown to many educators and Initiative 42 supporters until the Secretary of State’s Office began holding public forums on the issue around the state in August. The format for the forums allowed one pro-Initiative 42 speaker and one for the alternative (or anti-Initiative 42) to speak at the beginning for about ten minutes before the public had a chance to begin commenting. Latino spoke against Initiative 42 at every forum as one of the two introductory speakers.
It turns out there is a very twisted web of connections surrounding the Initiative 42 opposition. The Jackson Free Press has exposed that these connections run all the way to Americans for Prosperity and the Koch Brothers. These are the same players toying with policy and destroying public education in favor of big corporations in other states. In fact, Russell Latino is the Mississippi Director for Americans for Prosperity and has connections to Philip Gunn, Speaker of the House.
The Privatization Movement in Mississippi
Three years ago, Philip Gunn unilaterally removed Rep. Linda Whittington (D-Schlater) from the House Education Committee and reassigned her to another committee. He never asked her about it, and she hadn’t requested it. This was unprecedented, and it is widely speculated that the reason he did it was to push through the private charter school bill. Whittington had lead the committee to reject the bill. He stripped her from the committee and in her place assigned a pro-private school Republican representative. This act likely sent the message to all elected members of the House of Representatives that they can either follow his agenda or be reassigned from committees that are important to them and their districts.
This spring, the Legislature passed a school voucher bill straight from the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) playbook. ALEC helps corporations, idealogues, and their political allies pass legislation that privatizes schools. This legislation is written behind closed doors and then passed around from state to state. All a lawmaker has to do is fill in the blanks with the name of their particular state. It benefits large corporations and directs public tax dollars to private entities. ALEC is funded by the Koch Brothers. Interestingly, Jeb Bush, who is also closely connected to Americans for Prosperity, attended Phil Bryant’s signing of this bill in Jackson.
Light in the Darkness
Initiative 42 is a light in the darkness of this attack on Mississippi’s public schools. It is a chance for the citizens of Mississippi to stand up to the Legislature and remind them that they work for citizens not privatizers. Mississippians want their public schools to remain public and be fully funded.
However, Mississippians need help sorting through what the Executive Editor of the Clarion Ledger, Sam R. Hall, called “a load of horse crap” from the opposition to Initiative 42. Luckily, several groups are working to help Mississippians do this to get the initiative passed.
The Parent’s Campaign and the Mississippi Association of Educators have been working to educate the public on the initiative. 42 for Better Schools is the actual campaign to pass Initiative 42 and is a coalition of Mississippi public schools supporters and organizations. A grassroots group called Fed Up with 50th emerged to support school funding issues. They write on their Facebook page that
“We are law-abiding, tax-paying Mississippi voters—Republicans and Democrats—and we are FED UP! We are FED UP with failing schools, low graduation rates, poor teacher support, crowded classrooms, crumbling buildings, not enough textbooks or computers—all the things that make us 50th in education year after year. More than anything, we are FED UP that our legislators continue to BREAK THE LAW and underfund our schools, STEALING from our children and SELLING OUT their future to special interests.”
If Initiative 42 passes on November 3, Mississippians will have won a major battle but will have much work still left to do. If it doesn’t pass, the war will be lost.
Amanda Koonlaba is an elementary art teacher in Tupelo, MS. She is a contributor to MSEdBlog. Her views are her own and do not represent the views of any other entity.