Southern Poverty Law Center: Mississippi’s Charter Funding is Unconstitutional

JACKSON, Miss. — A new charter school provision would drain local money away from public schools, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of Jackson parents against Gov. Phil Bryant, the Mississippi Department of Education and Jackson Public Schools.

Earlier in the year, the state’s lawmakers amended a funding provision of the Mississippi Charter Schools Act, the original law that allowed the Mississippi Department of Education to fund charter schools in the state.

The change in the law will allow students who live in districts that were C-, D- and F-rated to attend charter schools in other districts, thus sending local tax dollars across district lines.

Related: Charter school mom says charters intend to dismantle public school system

The lawsuit says the Charter Schools Act “heralds a financial cataclysm for public school districts across the state” with the growth of the non-traditional schools.

“We have a number of students who are specifically in home schools or private schools, but we’ve never had to support them in that way.” –Sharolyn Miller, chief financial officer for Jackson Public Schools

Jackson’s lawsuit has echoes across the country where public school districts are trying to draw attention to what they say is an ongoing problem of charter schools draining away tax dollars intended for public school students. (In May, the Los Angeles Unified School District issued a report that estimated its losses at 500 million dollars.)

“The future is clear: as a direct result of the unconstitutional CSA funding provisions, traditional public schools will have fewer teachers, books and educational resources,” the lawsuit reads. “These schools will no longer be able to provide Mississippi schoolchildren the education that they are constitutionally entitled to receive.”

Related: Jackson says charter schools cost their district half a million dollars

Jody Owens, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Mississippi office, said in a release that, “a school operating outside the authority of the state board of education and the local school board cannot expect to receive public taxpayer money. The state constitution is clear on this matter.”

Midtown Public Charter School and Reimagine Prep, both in Jackson, are the only charter schools operating in the state. A third charter, Smilow Prep is scheduled to open in the fall (also in Jackson).

An official speaking on behalf of Jackson Public Schools (JPS) said that it has not yet been served with the lawsuit. “We follow the law as it relates to funding of charter schools. We value public education.”

Related: Mississippi education award not about charter legislation

Though named as a defendant in the lawsuit, the district has been publicly critical of the presence of charters. Neither of the charters in Jackson falls under the administrative power of JPS, which, as a low-performing district at the establishment of the charter school law, did not have the power to block them from forming there in the first place.

Miller says they billed JPS $565,000 at the beginning of the school year, and the district had to pay with its local contributions.

When JPS chief financial officer Sharolyn Miller spoke at a public hearing on education to members of Mississippi’s Legislative Black Caucus and House and Senate Democrats in April, she said the size of the district as well as its continued underfunding had inhibited its success. Charter schools did not help the issue; Miller says they billed JPS $565,000 at the beginning of the school year, and the district had to pay with its local contributions.

“We have a number of students who are specifically in home schools or private schools, but we’ve never had to support them in that way,” she told the Jackson Free Press in April.

Sierra Mannie is an education reporting fellow for the Jackson Free Press and The Hechinger Report. Follow her on Twitter @SierraMannie.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Mississippi.

Sierra Mannie

Sierra Mannie is an education reporting fellow for the Jackson Free Press and The Hechinger Report. Read more at jfp.ms/education.