Claiming that state lawmakers have underfunded education by $1.5 billion since 2009, 14 Mississippi school districts sued the state last week. A former governor, Ronnie Musgrove, is the attorney for the plaintiff school districts.
The core legal issue behind this case is the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), a 1997 formula that determines funding levels for all school districts. Consistently underfunded, MAEP has had more than a $1.3 billion deficit since the 2008 recession. This year’s appropriation is more than $250 million below what the formula requires.
Although all concede that the legislature has failed to provide the full funding required under the law, the key question is whether there is any legal basis for the plaintiffs to seek judicial relief. The current language in Mississippi’s constitution is one of the weakest in the country. Although it obligates the legislature to provide for the “maintenance and support of free public schools,” that duty is subject to “such conditions and limitations as the legislature may prescribe.” The question the court will need to decide is whether this language provides a constitutional basis for a court to review the legislature’s funding actions.
A Mississippi education advocacy group, Better Schools, Better Jobs, has launched a campaign to place an initiative on the ballot in 2015 to amend the state constitution to establish adequate education funding as a clear constitutional mandate. Some supporters of the ballot initiative approach see the lawsuit as a distraction from this effort, and some of them have also questioned the motives of Musgrove and other attorneys involved, who apparently will receive large contingency fees from the plaintiff school districts if the law suit is successful. Musgrove had been a staunch supporter of increased funding for schools throughout his political career. As the Democratic lieutenant governor in 1997, he helped steer the Mississippi Adequate Education Program into law over the veto of Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice.