Kelley Williams, Chair Bigger Pie Forum, October 7, 2015
“It’s insanity to do the same thing over and over and expect different results.” This is usually attributed to Einstein. But Mark Twain or Ben Franklin may have said it first. All quotable though. It describes “investments” by the Mississippi Development Authority in the name of jobs. MDA keeps doing it. The result is usually taxpayer dollars down the drain. And occasionally a few very expensive permanent jobs. But always happy consultants, lawyers, contractors, etc. who get paid for something that frequently costs too much, doesn’t work, or isn’t needed. Sounds a lot like education establishment insanity in the name of jobs.
Education fights not new. Mark Twain really did say: “In the first place God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.” Public education was contentious in his day too. The fiercest disagreements today are still about money. The numbers are just bigger. We spend 43% of the state budget or about $2.3 billion annually on K-12 public schools. More every year. It’s never enough to fix broken schools. But even more spending will fix them. Right? And if the legislature won’t appropriate even more, maybe a judge will order even more. Hence, ballot Initiative 42 to amend the Mississippi Constitution. We will vote in November to see if a judge’s order of even more of the same will produce different results.
The legislature now controls education spending as it has for over a hundred years. It passed the largest spending increase ever for FY 2016. The legislature is elected by and is responsive to about 900,000 voters. It is also accessible to various constituencies representing voters’ interests and influence. It makes law in open forum (well, mostly) with public debate, voter input and coverage by the press. It is subject to legislative rules and checks and balances. The process isn’t perfect. But it’s not a one judge decision behind closed doors either.
There are four Chancery Judges in Hinds County which has about 155,000 registered voters. One of these judges elected by fewer than 40,000 voters may decide education spending for the entire state if Initiative 42 passes. That decision will be made without benefit of open debate, voter input, First Amendment protection, or checks and balances other than appeal to a higher court. If you think that’s a tall order for one judge, you may take comfort from the Attorney General’s recent prediction. He expects lots of litigation in lots of courts if Initiative 42 passes. You may like this if you think more is better when it comes to lawyers and judges. On the other hand unless you think King Salomon is getting robed up, you may want the legislature to continue to deal with education issues.
Education issues include funding for community colleges and universities and for other secondary education needs and alternatives, not just K-12 public schools. The legislature deals with all of these. It also deals with taxes to fund them. Putting a judge in the mix seems like a recipe for chaos. The judge is supposed to get more money for K-12 education. Not to worry if this means less for other education needs. Or higher taxes.
More money, worse results. Not to worry either that more money for K-12 public schools doesn’t seem to correlate with better education results. Here are latest available Mississippi Department of Education numbers (spending 2012-13, grades 2014). The state has 148 school districts. Nineteen got an A grade from MDE. The A districts spent an average of $8,500 per student. In contrast 87 districts got a C or D (no F’s though). They averaged over $10,000 per pupil. Six spent over $13,000 including one over $18,000. So why aren’t they doing better? Answer: lots of reasons that more money won’t fix.
Better education takes more than more money. But it does take money. The Mississippi Adequate Education Program purports to say how much it takes. MAEP became law in 1997 over the veto of Governor Kirk Fordice. It was backed by the education establishment. The establishment now backs Initiative 42. It says the legislature won’t “fully” fund MAEP. There may be some good reasons.
Here are some reasons to be skeptical about MAEP. It rewards failure, not success. It bases adequate funding on the cost per pupil in C schools. This is $1,500 more per pupil than the cost in A schools. More money, worse results. This could be a problem for some legislators. Some voters too. It also says funding next year will be more than this year. So, the more you spend this year, the more you get next year.
There are other problems with MAEP. It perpetuates a status quo that doesn’t work. It doesn’t encourage innovation. It doesn’t address special education needs or opportunities. The legislature appropriated $155 million for FY 2016 for special needs and other targeted programs in addition to MAEP funding. Predictably, some say this money should have gone to MAEP.
But the biggest problem with MAEP may be local school boards. They use its funding however they see fit – usually for more of the same. As the Peer Committee noted there’s no accountability mechanism to see that even MAEP’s special purpose at-risk funds are used for the purpose intended. No wonder MAEP is so popular with the education establishment. No wonder we have more C and D schools than A and B schools. No wonder we seem locked in the past.
A monopoly. Things haven’t changed much since Mark Twain’s day. Public education is still a government monopoly. It’s like the US Postal Service. But sadly there’s no affordable FedEx alternative for parents with kids in failing schools. Putting a judge in charge won’t fix that. It could make it worse.