Jody Owens, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Mississippi Credit: Kate Royals, Mississippi Today

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Those suing the state over the charter school law are asking a judge to rule as soon as possible on the law’s constitutionality, particularly the funding of charter schools by state and local tax dollars.

“We’re asking Judge (J. Dewayne) Thomas to make a ruling as soon as possible,” Jody Owens, Mississippi director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Tuesday. “We think more than likely the State Supreme Court will have the final say-so in this case. It’s important to know there are no undisputed facts in this lawsuit — the Constitution says what it says, the charter school law says what it says.”

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. The lawsuit also cites another section of the Constitution 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,’ ” states the lawsuit, which names Gov. Phil Bryant, the Mississippi Department of Education and the Jackson Public School District as defendants.

Bryant, who signed the public charter school bill into law in 2013, said charter schools have been effective at “lifting poor and underserved children out of failing districts.”

“It is astonishing that an organization whose stated mission is to advocate for that population would use the court system to attack school choice, which empowers parents with options to secure the best education possible for their children,” Bryant said in an emailed statement. “It is also astonishing that the same organization would have people believe its frivolous litigation is not meant to close charter schools.”

He described the lawsuit as a “scheme by Democrats and their allies to usurp the decisions of duly elected lawmakers.”

Charter school supporters argue that tax dollars should follow the child, regardless of whether he is in a traditional public school or a charter school. When the lawsuit was first filed, Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, pointed to other private entities that receive state funding, such as programs that provide schools with additional support for special needs students.

In Mississippi, charter schools 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.

Owens said that because Judge Thomas’ potential ruling likely will be appealed, a ruling will not immediately halt funding for the three charter schools in Jackson this school year and it will give the Legislature time to craft a “constitutional funding model” during the 2017 session.

However, a ruling by the Washington Supreme Court similar in a lawsuit similar to the one in Mississippi jeopardized Washington’s charter schools. As a result, the charter school association there had to raise private funds to ensure they stayed open through the 2015-2016 school year. Washington lawmakers then passed a law this past session requiring charter school funds to come from state lottery proceeds.

Rachel Canter, executive director of the charter school advocacy group Mississippi First, said there is no guarantee current charter school students won’t be impacted by an adverse ruling.

“We agree that any adverse ruling in the county chancery court would likely be immediately appealed to the Supreme Court. At that point, however, our certainty ends,” she said.

“No one can guarantee what may happen in litigation, not even SPLC, and we simply do not know if any possible adverse ruling would have an immediate impact on the students currently in charter schools or how long the case will take to resolve,” Canter said.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.