EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON — Fights over education funding in Mississippi have divided mostly along party lines the past several years.
The Democratic-controlled House has pushed for more money for elementary and secondary schools, while Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and the GOP-controlled Senate have said education can’t get everything it wants when the economy is rocky and money is tight.
Starting in 2012, the dynamics could become more complex — at least for the Republicans.
Many of the Republican-held Senate districts are in areas with growing public school districts, such as DeSoto County near Memphis, Tenn., and Madison and Rankin counties in the metro Jackson area. Republican leaders will have to find a balance between two very different groups of their own constituents— suburban parents who say they want more money to create topflight schools, and tea party conservatives who say government already takes too much cash from people’s pocketbooks.
Funding doesn’t guarantee quality, of course. Even some education advocates concede that money could be more efficiently used in many districts — more in classrooms, less on administration. But many point out that Mississippi schools, as a whole, are at the bottom of many national lists for both funding and academic achievement.
DeSoto County provides one example of the rising tension over public funding for schools in a strongly Republican area.
On Aug. 2, GOP primary voters took the rare step of unseating one of the most powerful people in the Legislature, Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Doug Davis of Hernando. Davis has been in the Senate since 2005 representing a district that’s entirely within DeSoto, the fastest-growing county in Mississippi. The county has the state’s largest school district and has opened several new campuses this past decade.
Davis is a fiscal conservative with close political connections to both Barbour and Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant.
Bryant promoted Davis to the Appropriations chairmanship last fall after the committee’s previous leader, Republican Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo, was elected to Congress. That put Davis into an elite group of lawmakers with the most say in deciding how billions of tax dollars are spent.
During the 2011 legislative session, Davis helped produce a balanced state budget, as required by law. The state fiscal year started July 1. Then, as Davis was campaigning for re-election, he was sharply criticized by DeSoto County residents who said he’d done too little to ensure sufficient funding for the local schools.
The Commercial Appeal reported that Susan Kizer of Hernando, special education director for the DeSoto County schools, wrote in a letter to media outlets: “In the legislative session that just ended in April, Doug Davis proved himself to be enemy number 1 of public schools.”
Davis told the newspaper that as Appropriations Chairman, he had to make tough decisions because of the bad economy. He lost the Republican primary to homebuilder Chris Massey, who campaigned on boosting education.
On Aug. 9, attorney Richard Wilbourn of Madison spoke at a Central Mississippi Tea Party meeting in Flowood and lamented Davis’ loss.
“When the fully-fund-education, bureaucrat types kept coming to the Legislature saying, ‘More money for education, more money for education, more money for education,’ he said, ‘No, we live within our means, but right now’s a recession,’” Wilbourn said of Davis.
Wilbourn is leading a tea party effort to flip the House to Republican control. He said Davis’ defeat in the Senate was “a shot across the bow.”
“I promise you, legislators in both houses will notice that,” Wilbourn told an audience of about 80, some of whom shook their heads. “I predict we may end up with a pay raise for teachers next year as a result of that one race. That’s serious. I want to wake y’all up. That’s concerning.”