Hinds County Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas ruled on Tuesday in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of charters schools in Mississippi. Judge Thomas ruled in favor of the charter schools and their parents, and against the leftist Southern Poverty Law Center. “This court cannot find that plaintiffs herein have proven unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt,” Thomas wrote in his ruling.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant released a statement after the ruling became public, saying on Twitter: “This was a frivolous attempt by the Democrats and their allies to usurp the lawmaking authority of the Legislature and prohibit parents from having options when it comes to their child’s education.”
According to a release, Mississippi Justice Institute (MJI) Director Shadrack White, who represents the parents of charter school students, said, “This is a critical victory for the parents and their children who attend charter schools in Mississippi. Judge Thomas saw that the constitution does not trap my clients in their traditional public schools when public charter schools provide a better option. These parents know what’s best for their children.”
The charter lawsuit turned on whether the Mississippi Constitution allowed funding from state and local governments to be spent at charter schools. “Our case was simple,” said White. “My clients pay taxes, so they should have the right to take that money to a public charter school if that is a better option for their children. These schools are making their lives better. The plaintiffs in this case, however, had an extreme argument: that the funding for charter schools, agricultural schools, some alternative schools, and other types of non-traditional public schools should be barred.”
“As this case marches forward, I am going to continue thinking about all the good that charter schools have done for my clients, like Gladys Overton and her daughter Drew,” said White. “When we started this case, Gladys told us that, in her old school, Drew experienced nonstop bullying and a difficult classroom environment. Drew moved to ReImagine Prep, a charter school in Jackson, and today she is thriving. She was the most improved student in her class last year and, like every other student at ReImagine, is learning computer coding skills to prepare her for the workforce.”
“Students like Drew are who we fight for,” added White.
SPLC filed the lawsuit in Hinds County in 2016. According to a release at the time, the group argued: "Mississippi is funding its charter schools through an unconstitutional scheme that diverts public tax dollars from traditional public schools." The release said that the suit sought for the court to strike down the funding provisions of the Mississippi Charter School Act (CSA). According to the 2016 release, SPLC argued: "The Mississippi Constitution requires schools to be under the supervision of the state and local boards of education to receive public funding. But under the CSA, charter schools receive public funding even though they are exempt from the oversight of the state Board of Education, the Mississippi Department of Education, and local boards of education."
SPLC attorney Will Bardwell filed a notice of appeal on Tuesday afternoon.
Currently, Mississippi has three charter schools with almost 1,000 students. In Jackson and Clarksdale, charter schools are scheduled to open in the fall. Supporter of charter schools say that alternatives to public schools, operated by nonprofits, offer parents a choice while public schools continue to struggle. Opponents argue that charter schools drain money from public school districts. In the state capital, Jackson, three charter schools have received in excess of $1.5 million in local funds.
While the lawsuit brought by SPLC did not seek to outlaw charter schools, it did seek to have the court rule that public funding is illegal. SPLC argued that an earlier decision by the Mississippi supreme court struck down the transfer of property tax funds from the Pascagoula-Gautier area to other school districts. The plaintiffs argued that that decision should also prohibit the transfer of local funds from property taxes to public charter schools. Judge Thomas disagreed, ruling that, in the earlier case, students in the Pascagoula-Gautier district saw no benefit from the transfer of funds. “In the current action, the Legislature provided for local taxes to follow the local students,” Thomas wrote. “If a taxpayer parent of a particular school district chooses to send their child to a public charter school, the local tax follows that child.”
The State of Mississippi argued in the case that local districts have long sent local tax money to other districts through student transfers.
Judge Thomas ruled that schools are not required to have supervision by state and local superintendents in order to qualify as a “free school” under the Mississippi Constitution. He agreed with the state’s argument that because charter schools are legally forbidden from charging money, they meet the definition of free schools. He wrote: “A free school is a school which does not charge tuition.”
According to U.S. News and World Report, Mississippi ranked 45th among the 50 states as to the quality of K-12 public education. Only 27 percent of high school graduates were rated ready for college. The state was ranked 48th in the nation in NAEP math scores, and 50th in NAEP reading scores.