Mississippi Parents Demand an Answer: Are Charter Schools Constitutional?

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Mississippi Parents Demand an Answer: Are Charter Schools Constitutional?

Plaintiffs say privately-run, publicly-funded, corporate institutions do not qualify as "free" schools and shouldn't get taxpayer money

Empty chairs in a classroom. (Photo: Kevin O'Mara/flickr/cc)

Three charter schools in the Jackson district are currently slated to receive $4 million in public funds this year. (Photo: Kevin O'Mara/flickr/cc)

Mississippi parents are challenging the public funding of charter schools on the grounds that it's not constitutional.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an advocacy group, filed a motion for a summary judgment this week on behalf of the parents, for a speedy answer to this question.

The only debate in the case is that of constitutionality, which makes it prime for answering, SPLC told Hinds County Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas. The SPLC in July backed the lawsuit by several parents against Governor Phil Bryant, the Mississippi Department of Education, and the Jackson Public School District that challenged the funding of state charter schools.

Plaintiffs say that because the privately-run, publicly-funded, corporate institutions are not overseen by the state or local superintendents, they do not qualify as "free" schools and therefore shouldn't be eligible for taxpayer money. Three charter schools in Jackson are currently slated to receive $4 million in public funds this year.

According to the Jackson Free Press, about a third of that will come from taxes on property, vehicles, and equipment.

The Free Press reports:

The challengers say charter schools are barred from getting state money because they are not overseen by the state superintendent or a local school superintendent, and thus under previous state Supreme Court decisions, don't qualify as "free schools." The state Constitution says only "free schools" can get public money. That part of the constitution is in a section banning public money for religious schools.

The plaintiffs also say a 2007 Supreme Court decision bars the transfer of property tax collections from one school district to another. Each charter school is technically set up as separate district in Mississippi, meaning the three schools now operating in Jackson are not part of that district.

Against the odds

"As taxpayers in Jackson, we expect our property taxes to support public schools in Jackson," plaintiff Charles Araujo said. "I believe that in order for children to receive a quality education in Jackson public schools, Jackson public schools must have sufficient funding."

Araujo, a retired social worker, said he feared that if funding continues to get redirected from public schools to charter schools, the public institutions will be forced to cut programs for gifted students, special education for students with needs, and other services like buses and counseling.

As Louisiana educator and researcher Mercedes Schneider explained in July, the state's "slicing away at district funding in the name of school choice is not the same as the state's overseeing the schools," Schneider wrote. "Handing off funding does not constitute oversight."

And education historian Diane Ravitch noted at her blog that "Bryant called the lawsuit a frivolous attempt by 'Democrats and their allies' to usurp decisions made by the GOP-majority Legislature," while a conservative police group in Mississippi rounded up charter school parents to counter the lawsuit.

"The conservatives who used to fight against court-ordered desegregation are now able to present themselves as defenders of black children who want to attend segregated charter schools," Ravitch wrote.

Another plaintiff, Cassandra Overton-Welchlin, who has three children in the Jackson Public School District (JPS), told local media that her learning-disabled daughter requires "special tools and equipment for her to communicate," which the district has been unable to provide due to lack of resources.

"I fear as they continue to drain funding from JPS, charter schools will exacerbate the district's situation," she said.

A similar case in Washington in 2015 led to a win for public education with the state Supreme Court ruling that taxpayer funding of charter schools was unconstitutional.

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