Proposal or Proposition?
A version of this article was published in the AJC by Maureen Downey.
Proposal or Proposition?
This article was written just before the vote in Mississippi on Initiative 42 and 42a. Official election results show both amendments failed the first hurdle needed to pass: for a majority of people to vote to change the state constitution. About 54 percent voted against changing the state constitution. Forty-six percent voted to change the constitution. News reports cite enormous confusion on the part of voters as a result of a two step process required to vote for either initiative. Voters had to first vote to change the state Constitution and only an affirmative vote allowed them to proceed onward to vote for one of the two initiatives. The confusing procedure and the inclusion of 42a on the same ballot was an intentional political ploy. Rep. Greg Snowden, the primary author of 42A, acknowledged the alternative initiative was created as a roadblock to 42. “Is 42A intended to make it more difficult to pass initiative 42? Of course it is,” said Snowden, a Republican from Meridian, during the August forum.
I am a native of Mississippi, and credit Mrs. Moore from Raines ES in Jackson with instilling an interest in learning and reading that continues to this day. I was fortunate enough to attend Raines ES, Hardy Jr. High School, Provine HS, and Ole Miss. Mrs. Moore was my 6th grade teacher, and believed in me to the point that meeting her expectations became one of the driving forces in my life. Mr. Bickley at HJHS and Mr. Kenney at Provine taught me about music and about life, and Mrs. McBride at Provine told me I would never be a mathematician but she was pretty sure I had learned enough Algebra II not to hurt myself. My brothers and I all attended public schools in Mississippi, my nephews and niece are graduates of Mississippi public schools and there are more relatives than I can count that can all attribute at least part of what they have achieved in life to public education in the Magnolia state. All of us are thankful for the opportunities that public education provided.
I served in public education as a Band Director for 20 years, the majority of my teaching career spent in Alabama and Georgia. I am now a recovering school administrator, and retired in 2013 after an additional 19 years as a high school Principal and Superintendent of Schools in Georgia. I believe strongly in public education, and you can read some of my writings on a variety of educational topics at www.drjamesarnold.com.
In reading about Initiative 42 recently before Mississippi voters I noticed some similarities about the debate concerning public education in Mississippi and in Georgia. Legislators in both states insist on attempting to legislate excellence in education without the advice of teachers. They consistently advance ideas to “fix” public education in the mistaken and misguided belief that 1) public education is irreparably broken, 2) privatization is preferable to local control of schools and 3) that the only expertise needed to solving educational issues is that found in their own school experience. Public education is and has been succeeding at a far greater rate and to a far greater degree than state legislatures and ALEC would have you believe. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the high school graduation rate for 2012 was 80% nationwide. Yes there are disparities in graduation rates in places, and no, not everyone is achieving at high levels. The idiocy of “college and career ready” expectations for all students flies in the face of human nature and ignores the obstacles of life - poverty, illness, family, addiction and too many others to name - that confront students of all ages at every level. If any other profession achieved anywhere close to 80% of anything there would be dancing in the streets and proclamations honoring those that helped achieve that goal. Teachers, on the other hand, have suffered underfunding, privatization, higher expectations and blame for not reaching the remaining 20%. Of course there are improvements that can be made, and of course there are schools that do not come close to that 80% level, but taken as a whole the notion that success can only mean 100% of anything is foolish and counter-intuitive.
Initiative 42, initiated by the Better Schools, Better Jobs group in Mississippi, collected almost 200,000 signatures from Mississippians in every county to place the initiative on the ballot for November 3. The language of the initiative is straightforward and simple, and calls for the Mississippi Legislature to follow the law it enacted in 1997 under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program to fund public education. Since the passage of that law, the Legislature has seen fit to follow its own rules only twice, and since 2009 has underfunded public education and the legislature’s own law by over 1.5 billion dollars. Folks in Georgia can relate to that. Since 2003, Georgia Governors Perdue and Deal have underfunded their own public educational system to the tune of over 8 billion dollars in spite of the funding levels supposedly required by the Georgia Quality Basic Education formula. The primary difference is that Georgia calls these reductions Austerity Cuts. These cuts have continued on an annual basis even though the Governor touts a resurgence of the state economy and tax collections. Imagine that...expecting politicians to follow the laws that other politicians have passed. One Mississippi Legislator even commented “it’s not fair to expect the Legislature to follow laws that other legislatures passed years ago.” Try using that argument when you figure up your state taxes in January. While it’s true that money does not guarantee success, one Mississippi legislator noted “the absence of money just about guarantees failure.” He’s right. People - and Legislators - put money in what they believe in. If everything else comes before educational funding then everything else comes before education. Like Momma said “cheap only looks good once.”
So rather than allow the voters to decide on the success or failure of Initiative 42 on its own merits, the Mississippi Legislature came up with its own alternative to that plan and placed it on the same ballot for voters. The name of that plan, interestingly enough, is Initiative 42a. Simply put, it exempts the Legislature from following its own law if they really don’t want to. And they don’t. What politicians fail to prevent, they obfuscate. Voters, in order to vote for either plan, had to answer in the affirmative to an initial question about whether or not they would like to vote “yes” or “no” on an initiative. Then, if they vote yes, they get to decide whether vote for Initiative 42 - the one supported by 200,000 signatures - or Initiative 42a - the one stuck in at the last minute by politicians determined to do whatever they think is best, and the public ought to keep its nose out of what they consider to be their business. Let me say it again in case you missed it the first time - what politicians fail to prevent, they obfuscate. Georgia Legislators are pretty good at that, too. The Gov has proposed a plan to allow the state to “take over” schools that he determines are failing, place them under the control of an administrator that he appoints that reports directly to him, set up at untold cost a new and separate school district run by him and his cronies and guaranteed to remove the local control of those schools from the communities that surround them.
Quick - name a state or Federal program that’s a model of success, financial efficiency and achievement...how about the DMV? No, wait a minute - how about the state tax code or the IRS? No, how about...nevermind. You see the dilemma. Like the President and Arne Duncan proposing national solutions for public education when their kids go to private school or the US Congress deciding ACA is a great idea for you but they would rather not be subject to it, solutions on a state and national scale to what is essentially a local concern have never worked and will never succeed but politicians always try to convince us THEY know the One True Answer that will guarantee success for all. That such a thing as allowing communities to solve their own problems for their own kids that never seems to enter the minds of politicians. They talk about it and give it lip service and issue thousands of sound bytes and position papers but really don’t trust you - or me - to make decisions about what’s best for our kids in our communities because they think they know what’s best for us, and what’s best for us is to shut up and do what they say.
I believe the voters in Mississippi are smart enough to see sooner or later that, in spite of the rhetoric, their Legislators are more concerned with their own influence and power than they are about the education of your kids. I hope the same thing when Georgians go to vote on the Governor’s attempt to change the Georgia Constitution to set up his own little school district without the interference of those pesky teachers and voters. Politicians have never let the truth stand in the way of getting what they want. (“If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” ring a bell?) The Legislature’s insistence on accountability for everyone except themselves would be laughable if the consequences were not so severe for students, teachers and schools working diligently every day to overcome the effects of poverty. They continue to enact, through a series of proscriptive laws and budgetary manipulations, a process that is designed to dismantle the system that offers hope for many in the name of using public money to pay for the education of the privileged few as if public schools and students were only there to allow someone the opportunity to make a gigantic profit. Their abandonment of public education will only serve to keep those dependent upon public education as a traditional lifeline as uneducated as possible for as long as possible.
Once again, teachers and public education are not the problem, they are the solution. Sooner or later even legislators must see it’s not about race, it’s about poverty; it’s not about a test score, it’s about student achievement; it’s not about a standardized curriculum, it’s about good teaching; it’s not about the business model, it’s about personalization; it’s not about competition, it’s about cooperation. Sadly, we voted these people into office. Perhaps it’s time we began to rectify that mistake.