11/4/15

Sorry Kids, Voters Reject Initiative 42 in Mississippi

Historic Wechsler School in Meridian, MS
Historic Wechsler School in Meridian, MS (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I am surprised that Mississippi's Initiative 42 to fully fund public education failed to pass. The pro 42 side was relatively well-funded and did a decent job of getting the word out. The coalition of people supporting 42 was not limited to the handful of poorly organized liberals scattered throughout our state. Most major newspapers, educators, some religious groups, and at least a few atheists (e.g., Neil Carter) supported Initiative 42.

At work, nearly all of my co-workers were convinced it would easily pass. As one woman with a young family put it, "With all the attention this has been getting, it is difficult to imagine how anybody could vote against improving education in our state." I wasn't quite so optimistic. I have learned that our local conservatives have a way of going against what most of us would regard as common sense. Still, I did think Initiative 42 would likely pass.

While I was surprised to see voters reject the amendment, I probably shouldn't be. After all, Mississippi's Republican Party came out strongly against it. Given that the overwhelming majority of voters in our state vote Republican, I think one would have to assume they might listen when the Republican Party came together to oppose this measure. I'm sure it also did not help that the language on the ballot was complicated and unclear. Honestly, if I wasn't already up to speed on Initiative 42 before heading to my voting precinct, I would have had little idea what the ballot meant.

It is tempting to interpret the rejection of Initiative 42 as evidence of a disturbing lack of support for public education in Mississippi. I will admit that the first thought that flashed through my head when I saw the news that it had been defeated was, "I wonder if it is finally time for me to get the hell out of Mississippi?" After calming down a bit, I realized this probably isn't fair. In fact, I know people in Mississippi who value public education and opposed Initiative 42 on other grounds. I also know people here in Mississippi who value public education and misunderstood Initiative 42 because they bought into some of the fear-based messages disseminated by the opposition. It would be overly simplistic to claim that the measure's defeat clearly signaled widespread opposition to public eduction; it seems far more likely that it reflects a combination of political allegiance and confusion.

None of this prevents me from feeling disappointed today. We have done a poor job of funding our public schools, as well as many other essential public services. I understand that we cannot afford to do everything we might want to do, and this is especially true when we refuse to raise tax revenue and continue to elect Republicans. At the same time, I would hope that anyone who is serious about attracting employers to our state would see a better educated citizenry as an important resource. I am also inclined to agree with the religious groups who supported Initiative 42 when they argued that adequately funding public education was a moral duty. By improving public education, we improve the future of countless Mississippians. This is not a duty we should continue to shirk.

What now? Those of us who are educators in Mississippi are unlikely to see meaningful improvement anytime soon. It is not clear what would have happened had Initiative 42 passed, but it seems clear what happens now: more of the same. As for what we can do to improve public education in our state, I think we need much better political organization, more secular voices making the case for the value of education, and viable pro-education candidates. And yes, electing fewer Republicans would seem to be a necessary step in the right direction.

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