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State Supreme Court ruling ends bid to put judiciary in charge of school spending

Last Thursday's Mississippi Supreme Court decision to dismiss a lawsuit brought by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and 21 school districts was pushed into the background as the state Board of Education approved the newest batch of accountability standings.

It was a game changer that likely resulted in a sigh of relief across the street at the state Capitol.

It might've been one of the most crucial decisions by the state's highest court, because it finally settles whether the Mississippi Adequate Education Program funding formula is binding or whether the Legislature can ignore the calculation. The court ruled that the MAEP was not binding on the Legislature. It also ruled that it was not the appropriate role of the judiciary to appropriate funds, in this case $235 million in damages in underfunding as alleged by the plaintiffs.

The MAEP funding formula has only been fully funded twice since its passage in 1997. In fiscal 2018, which began July 1, the MAEP calculation was more than 2.43 billion, while the Legislature appropriated 2.2 billion for K-12 education. That's a difference of more than $232 million, which is more than the budgets for state community colleges or the Department of Mental Health. Forcing the Legislature to fully fund the formula calculation would've caused either massive cuts to other agencies or tax increases.

If the Musgrove lawsuit had been successful, it would've opened the door for more lawsuits that would've turned the state's judiciary into appropriators. In New Jersey, there was a series of 22 lawsuits from 1985 to the present by failing districts asking for a bigger chunk of the state education fund pie, known as the Abbott lawsuits.

These court decisions forced the state to give 55.6 percent of all state education funds to just 31 out of the state's 588 school districts. It's little wonder that the Garden State has the nation's highest property tax rates.

Mississippi would've become Garden State lite if the court would've sided with Musgrove and the school districts. With the appropriation authority in the courts, wealthier districts such as Madison County and Ocean Springs would've had to ask their local governments for property tax increases to make up for the lack of state revenue.

Musgrove's lawsuit was one of two pincers that threatened to put K-12 spending in the hands of the courts. The passage of ballot Initiative 42 in 2015 would've done the same thing, giving power to the Hinds County Chancery Court to provide injunctive relief.

By the way, the same non-profit that sued New Jersey's state government multiple times was the same group that helped write Initiative 42.

Now that issue is settled, it's time for the Legislature to come up with a new formula after last year's proposal didn't even get off the runway. Concerns over how much less wealthier districts would receive was the key concern that sank basing the proposal on EdBuild's recommendation.

A new funding formula needs to accurately calculate how much it really costs to send one child to school and do it in a way that balances providing poorer districts with funding to make up for a lack of local sources while not forcing districts in wealthier areas to pay higher property taxes.

The money needs to have strict controls to ensure that it isn't used to bloat central office staffs, but go directly to the classroom. The formula also needs to encompass all K-12 spending — which is a considerable amount when you factor in the Education Enhancement Fund and other programs that are outside of the MAEP allocation — to give taxpayers a more transparent picture of how their dollars are being spent.

Steve Wilson covers state and local government for the Mississippi Independent News Service. You can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.

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