Charter School Lawsuit Has Consequences for More Than Just Charter Schools
*Originally published in The Enterprise-Journal on April 29, 2018
A lawsuit in front of the Mississippi Supreme Court says charter schools are unconstitutional. If the lawsuit is successful, it could not only shut down charter schools, but other types of schools, too—including the Mississippi School for the Arts.
If you’ve never heard of a charter school, they are public schools that are free from some of the regulations of traditional public schools. They have more freedom when it comes to curriculum and school finance, for instance. They are allowed in struggling school districts in Mississippi, and they provide another school option for parents.
The story of the lawsuit started two years ago, when a group called the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a complaint saying charter schools violate the Mississippi Constitution. They sued despite the fact that charter schools are allowed in over 40 other states around the country.
SPLC had to rely on some logical gymnastics and a Jedi mind trick or two to make its argument. For example, part of SPLC’s argument is based on Section 208 of the Constitution. That section says a school can only receive funds from the state if the school is “conducted as a free school.” But SPLC says that language actually means all schools must be 1) “under the general supervision of the State superintendent” 2) “and the local supervision of the county superintendent,” 3) be “free from all sectarian religious control,” and 4) be “open to all children within the ages of five and twenty-one years.”
Most people read Section 208 and say the requirement that the schools be free just means they be free of charge. Because “free” means free.
I’m Director of the Mississippi Justice Institute (MJI), and we agree with the simple “free means free” interpretation. It’s one of the reasons why we at MJI stepped up to represent the parents who send their kids to charter schools in the lawsuit. We hope the courts will acknowledge that charter schools were established through the normal, democratic process, and they should be kept open.
Our clients’ stories are heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. One child of a client was mercilessly bullied in her old, traditional public school. Now, in her new charter school, she was the most improved student last year. She’s learning computer coding, like every other student in her school.
But our charter school parents aren’t the only reason we’re fighting SPLC in this case.
We’re also fighting because, if SPLC wins, a victory will mean numerous other kinds of schools in Mississippi will be unconstitutional, too.
Think back to SPLC’s basic argument. SPLC believes all schools must be under the “supervision of the county superintendent” to receive state money. If a judge accepts that interpretation of the Constitution, schools like the Mississippi School for the Arts will be ineligible to receive state funds. The same goes for the Mississippi School for Math and Science.
Other parts of SPLC’s argument mean Mississippi’s agricultural high schools, some alternative schools, and funding for transfer students are at risk, too.
That’s why this case is one of the most watched and important constitutional law cases in the state’s history. The Mississippi Supreme Court will evaluate the case in coming months and issue a landmark ruling. That ruling will reverberate beyond just the walls of Mississippi’s three charter schools.
Why is SPLC pursuing such extreme litigation? It’s anyone’s guess. They’re a national behemoth with a budget of over $14 million. That sort of budget requires a ton of fundraising.
While SPLC’s out-of-state donors may be happy with their legal strategy, Mississippi families who send their children to these creative schools and employees of the schools won’t be.
These are the kinds of cases the Mississippi Justice Institute champions: cases where normal people stand to lose a lot and cannot afford an attorney if we don’t represent them. We take on politicians who break ethics laws, Jackson leaders who hurt their community by having sanctuary city policies, and regulators who play favorites and hurt startup businesses. And that’s why we’re happy to stand up for everyone affiliated with a charter school, the Mississippi School for the Arts, MSMS, and all the other creative school options Mississippi provides.
Shadrack White is Director of the Mississippi Justice Institute, a division of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy. Learn more at www.msjustice.org, on Facebook at facebook.com/MississippiJusticeInstitute, and on Twitter @msjusticeinst.