Why Initiative 42 is not the answer for Mississippi’s problems in Education (by Sean Johnson)

Virtually all Mississippians are in agreement that our public educational system is in bad shape and that it has been in bad shape for as long as we can remember. Mississippi is last, or close to last, in just about every ranking concerning education. This earned reputation of being such a lackluster state in education hurts us in many ways other than with the lack of education itself: it discourages people from moving here and encourages people to leave.

Our lack of emphasis on, and our lack of management of, our state’s educational system is one of the main problems facing the state and it is completely understandable that folks want it to change and they want it to change now. But rather than a list of possible ways forward, rather than a list of strategies and benchmarks for improvement, we’ve been offered one, and only one, possible solution for making that change: Initiative 42.

Initiative 42 is the name for a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow for entities to sue the state in court for “adequate and efficient” funding of individual school systems. This is a terrible idea. Here are three reasons why:

The language is too vague.

The words “adequate” and “efficient” as used in Initiative 42 are not absolute terms and beg a number of questions that will ensure legal debates for decades in terms of what these terms mean in the context of the amendment. What does adequate mean? Does it mean that we should be at average funding of all states, of southern states, of states with similar demographics and tax bases? How about efficient? Does this mean rampant consolidations? Does it mean privatization? The answer? Nobody knows. The definition of these terms (notice that there are no metrics of success attached to them) will be left up to attorneys and judges.

Another question is: who will be paying for these cases to be prosecuted and defended? This will be unique because ultimately Mississippi taxpayers will be being billed for both sides: paying for the school district to sue and the state to defend. With over 140 school districts and over 1,000 public schools in the state, this could ring up some incredible legal fees. These legal fees, which could easily reach over $100 million dollars or more in a number of years, will not go toward better education. Not only will the court cases clog the Hinds County court system for years to come, the legal fees generated by the cases will go directly to attorneys who may or may not exploit the system for their own gain (there are no limitations on legal fees in the initiative). It would be ironic that the private school fees of the children of attorneys representing a poor school district would be paid by these funds, but irony is real. Furthermore, the language doesn’t say anything about the success of schools, but only the funding of them. Because increased funding does not guarantee increased success, we have our second reason…

The initiative will prohibit innovation.

As Winston Churchill once said, “Gentlemen, we have run out of money; now we have to think.” In a Mississippi with Initiative 42 in place, the focus for school systems will be securing funding through the courts; the focus will not be on innovation. More funding does not necessarily equal better schools. In fact, more funding for a system that has time and again proven that it doesn’t work prevents better possibilities from coming on line as technologies and education methods change.

For instance, there was a pro 42 article recently that talked about all the textbooks that could be purchased with new funding. Textbooks? Really? The year is 2015 and just about any of us can access almost the entirety of accumulated knowledge on our phones. We don’t need new textbooks, we need new methods that work for the unique make up of students in our state. This is not at all being addressed by Initiative 42.

When we make the necessary changes to improve our educational system, we should be focused on innovative, promising ideas that will not just get us to number 47 on the educational list, or even 35. We should—and we may as well, since we’re in such a shambles now—figure out how to hit the top 10. We literally can sink no lower than we are now, so we have nothing to lose in being bold. Initiative 42 would take this away from us by miring our school systems and our state government in an epic number of very expensive competing lawsuits. It will hinder innovation and is a sure way of keeping Mississippi at the bottom, every educational list.

The initiative means you’re lazy.

In its most basic terms, this Initiative means that rather than elect officials who will seek to improve (not just throw money at) education, the people of Mississippi would rather let the school systems hire lawyers and go after state money. It’s like citizens throwing their hands up in the air and saying “f* it, let the school systems handle it.” This is insane. It speaks of a citizenship bereft of civic responsibility and it’s shameful that it’s gotten this far.

Of course, American business is built upon businesses making money from convenience. The attorneys backing (and marketing) this measure will gladly take your money to relieve you from the worry of responsibility for the education of our state’s children. It also brings to question the precedence that this will bring to the state. We all need adequate water systems; we all need adequate roads. Shall towns simply sue the state for these things going forward? Is this Democracy’s next failing step? Or will we take stock and responsibility in our state and form of government and actually work to effect change in the next election?

 

Again, everyone agrees that Mississippi is in a critical situation regarding its public education system. But that doesn’t mean that we need to commit to the first so-called solution to come our way, no matter how well it is marketed. In fact, we need to be wary of the vagaries and slick marketing of this initiative. Without any metrics for success, with no limitations on legal spending, and no discussion on where the money to satisfy lawsuits would come from, we’re just being sold a boondoggle, that, at best, was an earnest reaction from a fed up, but hasty, civic group; or, at worst, is a money grab by the state’s legal industry. In either case, we should pass on this initiative and take the opportunity presented by this debate to make a realistic, but bold and innovative, plan for the success of our public education system.  The Local Voice Ligature


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