On November 3, 2015, a tight race to achieve full funding of public schools across Mississippi was lost. Initiative 42, the ballot initiative for “better schools,” was a citizen-led campaign with bipartisan, grassroots support for fully funded public schools. Nearly 200,000 Mississippians from across the state signed a petition to place Initiative 42 on the ballot. Those signatures came from parents, educators, and community members who are fed up with the status of their public schools – Mississippi is consistently ranked among those states with the least investment and the lowest performance. Initiative 42 sought to change that status by amending the state’s constitution to protect each child’s fundamental right to education and to hold the legislature accountable for funding the state’s schools.
Initiative 42 was a clear, pragmatic solution to systemic underfunding in Mississippi. In 1997, the Mississippi legislature passed a law called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), which calculates the funding needed to provide an adequate education – yet the state has fully funded MAEP just twice in the nearly two decades since it was enacted. Initiative 42 sought to remedy this, but the legislature refused to be held accountable for its responsibility to fully fund all Mississippi schools. We knew it would be a tough battle. This legislature has resisted investing in all of its children throughout history. When the Brown v Board of Education decision came down in 1954, the Speaker of the House (Mississippi’s longest serving) became the force behind a constitutional amendment to allow the closure of the state’s public schools if necessary, to preserve segregation. And in 2015, this same legislature responded to the citizen’s campaign to achieve full funding of all schools across the state by introducing a counter initiative, one with no teeth to hold the legislature accountable for investing in all children. The result was a confusing process for voters, who had to vote twice and choose between dueling initiatives (neither of which won). In the end, it was public school children across the state who lost on November 3.
The facts on the ground explained why this campaign was so critical. Earlier this year, the Southern Education Foundation found that Mississippi has the highest proportion of low-income students in its public schools of any other state at 71 percent. And the Schott Foundation for Public Education found that the state only graduates 51 percent of its black males – fifth from the bottom. Imagine the resources that could be provided to these youth if the funding gap, as great as $250 million last year alone, were closed: enough textbooks for every student to take home, reading coaches, and in some schools, even classrooms that don’t leak when it rains.
It was also a revolutionary campaign. Led by local leaders, supporters from within and outside Mississippi came together to say that we believe the statistics in Mississippi can change. We believe in the children of Mississippi, and we know they deserve better. People and organizations made investments of their time, their money, and their talents, bringing whatever resources they could to this effort – because it was the right thing to do, even in the face of an uphill battle.
While the public school children of Mississippi lost at the ballot last week, we believe there is still much to be celebrated. Over the course of this campaign, we’ve seen young leaders blossom and grow – young leaders like Charles Taylor and Amber Thomas, who are the product of Mississippi schools and who organized with a strong belief in the possibility of change and love for their state. We saw the emergence of a broad, multiracial and intergenerational coalition that finds common ground in support of public education, and we saw increased civic engagement in communities across the state.
This fight to protect every child’s right to education is far from over and we stand in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of Mississippians who voted for Initiative 42. We send our gratitude to the campaign for its dedication and unwavering commitment to the cause of better schools, in the face of many obstacles. Finally, we thank our allies and partners in the campaign for Initiative 42 for believing in and investing in this critical work, and we hope you stand with us in pledging our continued commitment to the schools all of Mississippi’s children deserve. We’re one step closer.