“…most of the schools serving our poorest students, especially students of color, have been consistently and deliberately underfunded….”

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Holy Bible, Matthew 6:21)

We’ve all heard political leaders say how important our children and their education are to the future of our society. We’ve also heard many complain that too much money is being wasted on public schools, and that the problems in education cannot be corrected by throwing more money at them. The dirty underside of that argument is that most of the schools serving our poorest students, especially students of color, have been consistently and deliberately underfunded from the start. These schools are then penalized for “failing” to meet the needs of students.

That’s why I’m encouraged by a long-overdue battle now underway over how public schools are funded in the state of Mississippi that I believe will have larger implications within the state and possibly across the nation.

The specifics of the Mississippi controversy reveal much about where our state policymakers hearts really are when it comes to “giving every child a quality public education”—a favorite election stump-speech line.  In 1997, the Mississippi legislature developed and passed a funding formula that would provide the minimum funds needed for each local school district to accomplish its obligations according to state standards and laws (notice this is a state and locally determined formula, not one forced on us from outside). However, the formula, known as the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) has only been fully funded by the legislature two years of its existence (both were election years). Over the past six years, MAEP has been underfunded by $1.3 billion, and for the current fiscal year, state lawmakers have already decided to shortchange it by another $257 million. Meanwhile, state tax revenues have grown dramatically, especially over the past three years.

The Parents’ Campaign (a social action group of public school parents in Mississippi) correctly charges: “The Legislature appropriated $257 million less for our children’s schools than is required by state law. That means that our public schools are operating on budgets that are $257 million short of what is required to run a ‘C’ level school [reference to the new grading system for public school accountability].”

Thankfully, a movement is growing across the state to make fairly and fully funding education a requirement under the state constitution. A statewide alliance, known as Better Schools, Better Jobs is working to gather enough signatures to put such an initiative before voters in November.  The movement has support from parents, mayors, local businesses, and teachers.

What’s significant about this effort is that it will make financial support of quality public education part of the state’s constitution:

If passed by the voters of Mississippi, the initiative will protect each child’s fundamental right to educational opportunity through the 12th grade by amending Section 201 of the Mississippi Constitution to require that the state must provide and the Legislature must fund an adequate and efficient system of free public schools. (http://www.betterms.org/ballot-initiative/).

Even more important is the cross-section of support, led by a coalition of parents, teachers, and other community leaders, who are working for an end to this crippling hypocrisy. This could be a model for similar initiatives in other places, and an opportunity for Mississippi to lead (for a change) the nation in moving towards true quality public education.

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