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Analysis: Before school funding prop gets to Miss. ballot, expect squabbling over alternative

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Next November, voters will decide whether to amend the Mississippi Constitution to require the state to pay for "an adequate and efficient system of free public schools."

It seems like a simple yes-or-no question, except that legislators could complicate the matter by putting a related, alternative proposal right next to it on the ballot.

The proposed amendment is going to voters because it survived the initiative process. People working with a group called Better Schools, Better Jobs spent months gathering signatures from 121,691 registered voters — more than the 107,216 signatures required.

Under the law that created Mississippi's initiative process more than 20 years ago, legislators have the option to put their own alternative on the ballot for any issue that survives the signature-gathering process. However, it's an option they have not yet exercised.

One way of looking at the option is that it gives legislators a chance to offer a sensible proposal on the same issue if petitioners manage to get something crazy on the ballot. An alternative view is that legislators love to micromanage, and allowing them to put an alternative on the ballot could confuse voters and kill the petitioners' original issue.

House Education Committee Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, told The Associated Press this past week that legislative leaders have started talking in general terms about putting an alternative next to the education funding initiative on the 2015 ballot, but they haven't agreed on details.

"The (House) speaker's office and lieutenant governor's office are looking to see if we need to or even want to," Moore said. "I would assume there would probably be an alternative."

For the Better Schools, Better Jobs initiative, this question would appear on the ballot: "Should the state be required to provide for the support of an adequate and efficient system of free public schools?"

A summary, which would also be available to the public, says: "Initiative #42 would protect each child's fundamental right to educational opportunity through the 12th grade by amending Section 201 of the Mississippi Constitution to require that the state must provide and the Legislature must fund an adequate and efficient system of free public schools. This initiative would also authorize the chancery courts of this state to enforce this section with appropriate injunctive relief."

Moore said he believes the initiative downplays what a judge might do if someone sues and claims state or local governments are shortchanging school budgets. Moore is concerned that being required to fully fund education will force lawmakers to either raise taxes or make deep cuts in the budgets of other state services.

"The question that will be on the ballot, it's kind of deceptive," he said. "It's not representative of what the actual constitutional amendment will do."

In a separate interview, Better Schools, Better Jobs spokeswoman Patsy Brumfield disagreed.

"The amendment is not confusing at all," Brumfield said. "It's just a couple of sentences that, very straightforward, provide a constitutional right for every child to an adequate education. And then it requires that the Legislature fully fund its share of that child's education. I don't know why Rep. Moore would think that is confusing. In fact, 17 years ago the Legislature promised to do that very thing — to pay its share. He may remember that."

In 1997, the Legislature enacted the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a complex formula designed to give schools enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. The formula has been fully funded only twice and is unlikely to be fulfilled in the coming year.

Brumfield said education advocates "are laser focused" on preventing legislators from putting an alternative proposal on the ballot.

"The Legislature has had 17 years to come up with a better idea," she said, "and it hasn't."

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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