Suit claims charter school law is unconstitutional

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Midtown Public Charter School is located on Adelle Street in the Midtown area of Jackson.

Mississippi Today

Midtown Public Charter School is located on Adelle Street in the Midtown area of Jackson.

A group of Jackson parents is challenging Mississippi’s charter school law, calling it unconstitutional and harmful to students in the Jackson Public School District.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, representing the group, filed the lawsuit in Hinds County Chancery Court on Monday against Gov. Phil Bryant, the state education department and the district.

Bryant, along with the state’s Republican leadership, has said he believes charter schools give better options to students in Mississippi, a state that regularly ranks at the bottom in education.

The lawsuit points to two sections in the Mississippi constitution that state a school district’s ad valorem taxes – or local funding – may only be used for the district to maintain schools it oversees. It also cites another section that says the Legislature must not appropriate any money to a school that is not a “free school.”

“A ‘free school’ is not merely a school that charges no tuition; it must also be regulated by the State Superintendent of Education and the local school district superintendent. Charter schools … are not ‘free schools,’” the lawsuit states.

Mississippi’s charter schools are operated by nonprofit organizations that appoint a board for the school. The state’s first two charter schools opened last year in Jackson with another one set to open this year. Each charter school operates under its own board and the state’s seven-member Charter School Authorizer Board, which oversees the charter system and approves applications. Two organizations are currently vying to open four more charter schools in Jackson beginning in 2017.

Public charter schools in Mississippi are funded by the state on a per-pupil basis according to the school’s average daily attendance, or the number of students who attend 63 percent or more of a school day. They also receive local dollars from ad valorem tax receipts. When a student enrolls in a charter school, money that would have gone to the public school district follows the student to the charter school.

The ultimate goal of the lawsuit is for the courts to declare the funding mechanism of charters unconstitutional, similar to what happened when the Washington Supreme Court ruled its state’s charter school law unconstitutional based on its funding streams. The ruling resulted in the Washington Legislature passing a bill this year requiring charter school funding to come from state lottery proceeds, not money from the general fund.

Bryant did not respond to requests for comment late Monday afternoon, and the state education department does not comment on pending litigation. JPS spokesperson Sherwin Johnson said Tuesday morning the district had not yet been served with the lawsuit.

“We merely follow the law as it relates to funding of charter schools. We value public education,” Johnson said.

Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford

Gil Ford photography

Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford

Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, was involved in the writing of the law. He said he hasn’t seen the lawsuit but finds it “disappointing.”

“If anything, they should be suing about Jackson Public Schools and the failure of them to provide an education to those students,” Tollison said, referring to a recent audit of the district that showed it was in violation of a majority of the state’s accreditation standards. “There are so many things that are wrong with Jackson Public Schools particularly.”

Tollison said it will ultimately be up to a court to make a decision, and it would likely be appealed and the final decision made by the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Tollison also pointed out that public money often is sent to private entities. “In terms of special education, contracting with Mill Creek and with Children’s Home Services for providing special needs students with services that the school can’t provide … it’s nothing that doesn’t occur across the state,” Tollison said.

But Jody E. Owens, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi office, said a school district can’t succeed without adequate resources.

“How can you expect that school system to succeed if you don’t give them the number of teachers it needs to succeed? Yet you’re still asking JPS to maintain same bricks and mortars, same schools as always,” Owens said. “If we don’t get control of this, it could really be detrimental to public education in Mississippi.”

Charter school advocacy group Mississippi First said in a statement that the timing of the lawsuit — a few weeks before school starts — is harmful to current charter school students.

“SPLC’s lawsuit is based on a belief that public charter school students — real public school children from some of the most underserved communities in the City of Jackson — do not deserve the public dollars raised in their own communities to support their education,” the statement read.

It continues to pose the question, “How does this lawsuit ensure that all children in the City of Jackson have access to an excellent public education?”

The Legislature passed the state’s charter school law in 2013 and expanded it to make more students eligible to attend charter schools this legislative session. Students who attend charter schools in the state are selected through a lottery process, and the low-income student population must reflect that of the local school district, or at least 80 percent.

According to the SPLC, the operation of Jackson’s two current charter schools, Midtown Public Charter School and ReImage Prep, has resulted in the Jackson Public School District’s loss of $1.85 million in funding.

“JPS could have spent $1.85 million on 42 teacher salaries, 18 new school buses, guidance counselors for 6,870 students, or vocational education programming for 6,672 students,” the complaint reads.

It predicts that next year, after the addition of grades to the two existing charter schools and the opening of Smilow Prep, JPS will lose $4 million in funding.

Cassandra Overton-Welchlin, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, is a parent of three children, two of whom who are currently enrolled in JPS. She said she had to remove her oldest daughter, who is dyslexic, from McWillie Elementary School because there was a “lack of resources and expertise for dyslexia services.”

“As the parent of a student with special needs, I fear that charter schools will exacerbate this situation as they continue to drain funding from JPS,” Overton-Welchlin stated in her affidavit.

Owens said the goal of the lawsuit is for the courts to immediately declare the current method of funding charter schools unconstitutional and stop payments to the schools, “but also gives the legislature or courts some wiggle room to fix this.”