During the summer of 2014, a Mississippi advocacy group, 42 For Better Schools succeeded in getting enough signatures to place on the November 2015 ballot an initiative that will ask voters “[s]hould the state be required to provide for the support of an adequate and efficient system of public schools?” and should state courts be given the power to enforce this mandate? An unusual article in the Mississippi Constitution (Art. XV, Sec. 273) allowed the legislature under these circumstances to then place an alternative initiative (known as “Alternative Measure 42A”) on the same ballot. In April 2015, responding to a complaint filed by a mother who felt the initiative was confusing and misleading to voters, Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Winston L. Kidd denied the state’s motion to dismiss her complaint and also directed the legislature to change the title of its ballot initiative so that voters would clearly understand how the two initiatives differed.
The legislatively proposed ballot initiative would have asked voters, “Should the Legislature provide for the establishment of free public schools without judicial enforcement?” In addition to denying the courts the authority to enforce the constitutional measure, Alternative Measure 42A removes substantive language in the advocates’ version that would require the state to support “adequate and efficient” – and not just merely free – schools.
Judge Kidd selected an alternative ballot initiative title suggested by the plaintiff.
In July 2015, the state’s high court ruled that Judge Kidd had unconstitutionally usurped the will of the legislators in rewriting the legislative alternative language.
In October 2015, Mississippi voters rejected initiative 42. Republican legislators and a number of business groups strongly fought the initiative, arguing that legislative decisions should not be second-guessed by the courts. Supporters of the initiative stated that they aren’t giving up, and that they will continue to press the legislature politically to fully fund education.
Clarksdale Municipal School District v. Mississippi
In late August 2014, former Mississippi Governor Ronnie Musgrove, acting as lead counsel to fourteen Mississippi school districts, filed the first school funding action in the state alleging that the legislature has failed to provide the funding owed to the schools under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (“MAEP”). Plaintiffs are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to have the unlawfully withheld MAEP funds made available to them, and to prevent the legislature from underfunding MAEP in the future. Under the law, “Effective with fiscal year 2007, the Legislature shall fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.” There appears to be no dispute among the parties that the legislature has violated its own laws by failing to fully fund MAEP. Indeed, MAEP has been underfunded by more than $1.3 billion since the 2008 recession, and the appropriation for 2014 was more than $250 million below what the statutory formula requires.
In July 2015, Hinds County Chancery Judge William Singletary held that Mississippi legislators are not obligated to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Although the judge said that he believes “MAEP should be annually funded to the fullest extent possible,” he nevertheless held that the court was unable to interpret the relevant statutes as imposing a mandatory annual duty on the legislature to appropriate 100 percent of the funds estimated under MAEP because the statute includes provisions for alternative ways the state should handle education funding during years when money falls short.
In October 2017, The Mississippi Supreme Court held that the state legislature is not constitutionally required to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program despite the specific language in MS Code §37-151-6 . It held that the legislature has significant discretion under the relevant constitutional provision, which states “[t]he Legislature shall, by general law, provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of free public schools upon such conditions and limitations as the Legislature may prescribe.” Miss. Const. art. 8, § 201. The court also added the interesting additional holding that “[B]ecause the Governor is not obligated to sign any bill fully funding MAEP, the Districts have not shown any injury, as they cannot show that, even had the Legislature passed a bill fully funding MAEP, that bill would have become law.”
A group of Jackson, Mississippi parents, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, recently filed a challenge in Chancery Court, Hinds County, to the Mississippi Charter School Act. (Araujo v. Bryant) The plaintiffs claim that the state constitution forbids the legislature from appropriating public funds to any school that is not a “free school” and that the state Supreme Court has defined a “free school” as one that is under the supervisions of the state superintendent and the local county superintendent. (Charter schools in Mississippi are accountable to the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board, a body appointed by the governor and lieutenant governor.) Furthermore, according to the complaint, local school districts are constitutionally prohibited from using their local tax revenues to support schools that are not part of their school system.
Currently, two charter schools are operating in Jackson and a third is authorized to open during the next school year. Under the Charter School Act, the state and the local district must transmit to each charter school for each student it enrolls an amount equal to the per capita funding that is provided for public school students in that district. The parents claim that last year the Jackson public schools were required to send to the two charter schools $1.85 million that should have been used instead to improve the education being provided to their children and other public school students.
In, February, 2018, , Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Dewayne Thomas ruled Mississippi’s charter-school law does not violate the state’s Constitution. The judge stated that charters must “‘be conducted as a free school’ and no evidence has been presented that they are not.’” The judge also ruled that charter-school funding provisions do not violate the Mississippi constitution because the local tax dollars follow students to different districts, when they transfer in some circumstances or attend special schools or programs.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, counsel for the public school plaintiffs, has stated that they plan to appeal the case to the Mississippi Supreme Court.