Out-of-state money floods into fight over Mississippi education funding

By Steve Wilson  /  Mississippi Watchdog

Photo illustration by Steve Wilson

PAINFUL EQUATION: The Mississippi Adequate Education Program funding calculation is not exactly easy to figure.

Out-of-state money is flowing into the fight over the controversial Nov. 3 ballot initiative that could force the Mississippi Legislature to increase K-12 education funding.

Two left-leaning groups — the Washington, D.C.-based New Venture Fund and the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation — have given more than $2.5 million in the past two years to the 42 for Better Schools political action committee, the biggest proponent of Ballot Initiative 42. The New Venture Fund has provided $712,500 so far this year, while the Southern Education Foundation has provided $480,000. Last year, the New Venture fund gave 42 for Better Schools $864,500, while the SEF supplied $480,000.

The Republican-leaning political blog Y’all Politics first raised the issue of 42 for Better Schools‘ funding streams.

The New Venture Fund, as detailed by its IRS Form 990, supports issues such “family planning, alternative energy sources and the reduction of fossil fuels and the support of the Common Core Initiative.” The fund’s board of directors president is Eric Kessler, a former appointee in the Clinton administration.

The Southern Education Foundation says on its website it “believes that economic and social progress in the region are inextricably linked to halting the disinvestment in public education” and is strongly against vouchers and tax credit scholarships. One of its trustees is former Mississippi secretary of state and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dick Molpus.

Patsy Brumfield, director of communications for 42 for Better Schools, said the out-of-state money is a nonissue for supporters of the ballot initiative.

“Opponents of Initiative 42 will say anything to confuse supporters of public education in Mississippi,” Brumfield said. “Our campaign finance reports are filed with the Mississippi Secretary of State for all to see and contain all of the information required by state law.”

Initiative 42 would add a requirement to the state constitution to force the Legislature to “fully fund” education funding according to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program funding formula, a brain-busting calculation that determines each district’s share of the more than $2 billion state taxpayers spent on K-12 in fiscal year 2016. Forcing the Legislature to fully fund the MAEP amount would increase the K-12 budget — which exceeded $2 billion, or about 54 percent of the state’s general fund budget — by about $260 million.

In fiscal 2016, the state’s spending on K-12 went up by $99 million, or 4.6 percent, marking four consecutive years where K-12 spending has increased under the Republican-led Legislature.

Initiative 42 could open up the state to lawsuits, as the state’s system of chancery courts would be tasked with enforcing the policy through “appropriate injunctive relief.” Since the state capital is located in Jackson, the Hinds County chancery court would have jurisdiction over any lawsuit asking for injunctive relief.

“We will absolutely be spreading the word that Initiative 42 is a disaster for families that want a quality education,” said Grant Callen, founder and president of Empower Mississippi, a school choice advocacy group. “Initiative 42 takes the power away from representative government and puts it in the hands of one Hinds County judge who’s only accountable to the voters of Hinds County. That’s a disaster for democracy. It’s a disaster for education policy going forward.”

The additional money isn’t guaranteed to go to the classroom. According to a report issued by State Auditor Stacey Pickering‘s office in 2014, administrative spending has outpaced classroom spending every year except 2004-2005.

Each year, the Board of Education uses the MAEP equation to calculate the amount of money it requires from the Legislature. Only twice, in 2003 and 2007, has the education department received the full amount under the MAEP from state lawmakers.

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