The Mississippi Supreme Court today ruled the Legislature is not mandated by law to fully fund the state’s public schools.
In a unanimous opinion, the Court said the law that established the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) formula does not specify the governor must sign a funding bill that uses the formula—therefore, the statute is not mandatory.
The ruling came on a lawsuit filed on behalf of 21 school districts around the state. The districts argued the Legislature had underfunded public education during the fiscal years 2010-2015 despite being mandated by state law to use the MAEP formula. Represented by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, they requested more than $235 million in state funds to make up for the shortfall. But a Chancery Court judge in Hinds County dismissed the suit on the grounds that the statute provides no actual mandate for fully funding education.
The state’s highest court agreed. “Because Section 37-151-6 does not obligate the governor to sign a bill fully funding MAEP, the statute cannot be construed as mandatory,” the court opinion states. “Additionally, because 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.”
State Representative Jay Hughes, a proponent of full funding for public education, said he was “flabbergasted” by the court’s decision. “This ruling was very disappointing,” he said. “It was an outcome-driven ruling. I think they got the outcome they wanted and then wrote the opinion to support it.”
The law in question says that “the Legislature shall fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.” But the court opinion stated, “The language missing from this provision is particularly illuminating. (The law) places no obligation or responsibility on the governor to approve any bill funding MAEP.”
According to Hughes, the ruling essentially means “laws that say the legislature shall do something are not valid unless the law also says the governor must sign the bill. That, to me, is a whole new level of pedantic avoidance.”
“I can’t claim that, in my 29 years or so of law practice, I have read all 70,000 or 80,000 laws [on Mississippi’s books], but I can say I have never, ever, ever seen a law that also requires the governor to sign something,” Hughes added. “What it comes down to is they don’t want to fully fund public education, and now they have a court opinion that says they don’t have to. It’s a sad situation, and it does nothing to move Mississippi out of 50th place.”
In a statement supporting the court’s ruling, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said, “Mississippi’s Constitution is clear: It is the Legislature’s sole authority to allocate tax dollars, and I appreciate the decision of the justices to dismiss the lawsuit by a former Democratic official. I’m proud Mississippi’s Republican leaders have prioritized education at all levels and spent about $400 million more than it did just six years ago, and we will continue to find more ways to invest in the classroom to provide opportunities for our kids.”
Hughes said he believes race plays a part in the underfunding of the state’s public schools. “I think race is still one of the biggest issues we face at every level of education funding in Mississippi,” he said, adding that it shows in “the disparate quality of books, buildings and buses in the school districts.”
The court’s ruling “gives the Legislature a free pass on continuing to underfund the schools,” Hughes said. “Either we change who we elect, or we are destined to continue to get the same thing we’ve always gotten. It’s the definition of insanity. You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result, and that specifically applies to Mississippi and its public school system.”
Rick Hynum is editor-in-chief of HottyToddy.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.