Kelley Williams, Chair Bigger Pie Forum, November 20, 2015
“People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news:” Mark Twain. The political editor of a Jackson newspaper wrote: “Initiative 42 defeat was disaster averted, not victory for Republicans … Hundreds of thousands of Mississippians are fed up with the state of our public school system and the level of funding the Legislature provides.” It’s correct that Initiative 42 was defeated. The vote was 350,000 to 322,000. That’s news.The rest is opinion. There are lots of opinions about Initiative 42’s defeat.
Opinions vs facts. Opinions tend to reflect vested interests or political party or wishful thinking or all of the above. Occasionally, common sense. Initiative 42 supporters tend to be direct or indirect public school employees or Democrats or idealists about government. Opponents tend to be taxpayers or Republicans or skeptics about government and monopolies. There are crossovers and exceptions. Some of these are sentimentalists who went to good public schools. Some read newspapers that support Initiative 42. And confuse opinions with facts.
“Get your facts first, and then you can distort ’em as you please:” also Mark Twain. Here are some facts about the initiative issue and the vote.
Facts: Initiative 42 was a constitutional amendment. The current Mississippi Constitution was adopted in 1890. The initiative provision was added in 1992. Two initiative attempts (term limits) since then failed. There is a two year moratorium on failed initiatives.
Facts: Initiative 42 would remove control of public schools from the Legislature and give it to the State (undefined term). A Hinds County Chancery Court Judge would make the changes and enforce them. Typically about 800,000 voters across the state elect legislators. Typically about 40,000 voters elect a Hinds County judge. There are four. The majority of voters state wide are Republican. The majority of Hinds County voters are Democrat. Thus, Initiative 42 would put education policy and over 40% of the state budget under control of about 5% of the voters who are majority Democrat. It’s no surprise it’s a hot political issue.
Facts: Initiative 42 supporters spent $7.2 million through October per Political Initiative Reports. Opponents spent $1.4 million. Supporters outspent opponents over five to one and lost. About 80% of their money came from out of state.
Facts: The big name Republicans opposing Initiative 42 were the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor. They received $3.4 million total in campaign contributions through October. The big name Democrat for Initiative 42 was the candidate for attorney general. He received $2.0 million. All three were elected. The governor got 472,000 votes, the lieutenant governor, 425,00 votes, and the AG, 388,000. All ran well ahead of Initiative 42. About 20% of the Republicans’ money was from out of state vs 60% for the Democrat’s. His biggest contributor was the Democrat Attorney Generals Association. It is heavily funded by trial lawyers. About 75% of the money backing both Initiative 42 and the AG was from out of state.
Facts: In 2014 the Legislature appropriated $2.1billion or about 41% of the state budget to fund Mississippi’s 148 public school districts. Sixty one districts graded A and B by the Mississippi Department of Education with this level of funding. The other eighty seven districts spent 18% more per student and graded C and D. Grades do not correlate with spending.
Facts: In 1997 the Legislature passed the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. It defines adequate funding based on spending by C districts. The 2014 appropriation would increase 10% if it were fully funded. Local school boards spend the money the legislature appropriates. More every year. But not as much more for teachers. Their salaries are now 33% of total spending down from 41% twenty years ago.
Facts: A former governor sued the Legislature for under-funding MAEP. His potential fee: $28 million (per Associated Press). He lost because the Legislature now has flexibility about funding MAEP. Changes under Initiative 42 could make it easier for him and other trial lawyers to sue and win. He was a big supporter of Initiative 42. And contributor to the AG.
Distorted facts and opinions. The 677,000 votes on Initiative 42 may really mean people are fed up. Those against it may be fed up because they know under performing public schools already get more money than A and B schools and don’t think lack of money is the problem. Those for it may think 10% more fundig under MAEP will fix C and D schools. Some may also be public school employees, service providers, or potential litigants who just want more money.
The defeat of Initiative 42 may really be disaster averted – for everyone. The Legislature is a devil you know. The State is a devil you don’t. Under Initiative it would be the creature of a single judge elected by a small minority of Mississippi voters. There are 172 legislators. If you don’t like how yours votes, you can replace him or her. Good luck if you don’t like what the judge does.
Supporters of Initiative 42 say the Legislature didn’t play fair when it put Initiative 42A on the ballot. One newspaper said it was a “poison pill” designed to confuse voters.
Poison pills are used by under performing public companies to buy time to thwart corporate raiders. It may be an apt metaphor. Substitute underperforming public schools for underperforming company, the Legislature for directors, and trial lawyers for raiders. Sometimes directors use the bought time to bring in a new CEO, shake things up, shut down failing operations, and otherwise improve results. The raider and stockholders profit. The raider leaves. Sometimes directors pay the raider to go away, nothing happens, and the company continues to under perform. Sometimes the raider takes over if nothing happens.
What will the Legislature do about under performing schools? More of the same? Something different to shake up the bureaucrats? Like competition? More charter schools? Vouchers? Kahn Academy? Udacity? Home schooling assistance?
The clock’s running.