Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove delivers arguments before the Mississippi Supreme Court in May 2017.

Legislators don’t have to follow the state’s public education funding formula, the state’s highest court ruled Thursday.

Twenty-one school districts sued the state in 2014 for failure to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a formula which determines funding level for public schools. Ignoring the formula, plaintiffs argued, violated the state constitution’s requirement to provide free public education to citizens.

In a unanimous decision, Mississippi Supreme Court justices agreed with a lower court that the statute that created the MAEP formula is not a binding mandate. 

“Because Section 37-151-6 (the statute that governs MAEP) does not obligate the Governor to sign a bill fully funding MAEP, the statute cannot be construed as mandatory. Additionally, because the Governor is not obligated to sign any bill fully funding MAEP, the Districts have not shown any injury, as they cannot show that, even had the Legislature passed a bill fully funding MAEP, that bill would have become law,” wrote Justice Leslie King for the court.

Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove represented the school districts. During oral arguments in the case, Musgrove compared education formula to the hiring of judges.

“…Once they determine that number (of judges), the salary, then it is not an option. It is mandated. So consequently in Section 201 … it’s up to the Legislature to define at what level we support them,” Musgrove argued in May.

The education formula has only been fully funded twice since its inception in 1997. Legislative leaders have long argued that lawmakers cannot be bound to decisions of previous Legislatures.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, in a statement said the supreme court ruling represents an affirmation of “the Legislature’s sole authority to allocate tax dollars.”

“I appreciate the decision of the justices to dismiss the lawsuit by a former Democrat (sic) elected official … I’m proud Mississippi’s Republican leaders have prioritized education at all levels and spent about $400 million more than it did just six years ago, and we will continue to find more ways to invest in the classroom to provide opportunities for our kids,” Reeves said in a news release.

Ryan L. Nave, a native of University City, Mo., served as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief from May 2018 until April 2020. Ryan began his career with Mississippi Today February 2016 as an original member of the editorial team. He became news editor August 2016. Ryan has a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked for Illinois Times and served as news editor for the Jackson Free Press.