Keep Education Funding Out of the Courts

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) that was designed to keep education funding out of court is now in court, and may stay there for years to come.

In the mid-90s, lawsuits popped up in many states over inadequate funding for schools, particularly those in impoverished areas. Mississippi was at risk because of its many low-tax-base schools providing inferior education. In 1997, the Mississippi Legislature fully adopted MAEP to better fund poor schools and avoid potential litigation. MAEP was to be fully phased in by 2002.

However, MAEP has only been fully funded twice, in 2003 and 2007. The latter occurred after the legislature enacted the following language in 2006, “Effective with fiscal year 2007, the Legislature shall fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.”

Last year former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and a group of lawyers went to court on behalf of 21 school districts. They want the state to make-up shortfalls in MAEP funding since 2010 and fully fund MAEP going forward. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood in vigorously defending the state said, “one session of elected legislators cannot dictate the discretionary budgeting and appropriation authority of a future session of elected legislators.”

The Chancery Court in Hinds County will consider this case sometime this year.

Meanwhile, public education proponents gained enough signatures to put a constitutional amendment initiative on the ballot this November that will, unsurprisingly, require the legislature to fully fund MAEP.

If passed, this initiative will give Chancery Courts authority to enforce full funding of MAEP.

How ironic that a program designed to avoid litigation is becoming dependent on litigation.

Proponents of MAEP act as if its funding formula is sacrosanct.

The legislative PEER Committee, State Auditor Stacey Pickering, and full-funding opponents see problems. PEER said the formula failed to incorporate efficiency measures. Pickering said audits showed little accountability once school districts receive lump sum MAEP funds and inflated enrollment figures distort allocations. Gov. Phil Bryant said MAEP is not effective.

Others point to education needs in Mississippi not included in MAEP, such as early childhood education, a priority of the Mississippi Economic Council’s Blueprint Mississippi.

Bryant staked out the Republican position on MAEP earlier this month. “We are unwilling to put money into a formula that has not proven to be effective and that appears to increase the administrative expenditures more than the classroom. Republicans are very willing to fund things that work in education.”

The Republican controlled Legislature should listen to the governor. It has the opportunity to adopt a revamped adequate education program that works. This would show that Republicans do consider education funding a priority and provide truly “adequate” funds to our schools in need.

Education funding does not need to be in the courts … or in the constitution which precipitates court involvement.

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