An awaited ruling by a Hinds County judge in the controversial charter school lawsuit could have impact on the upcoming legislative session.
After the parties in the lawsuit presented their arguments in court in April, Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Dewayne Thomas said he would issue a ruling on all parties’ motions some time after June. Thomas said in his view, the issue of local tax dollars following students to charter schools is the crux of the lawsuit.
Southern Poverty Law Center senior attorney Will Bardwell represents the group of Jackson Public Schools parents suing the state of Mississippi. The parents argue the loss of $4.75 million to the three charter schools in the city over the last two years is hurting the underfunded district and their children who attend its schools.
The lawsuit contends that the way charter schools are funded in the state is unconstitutional. It points to two sections in the Mississippi constitution that say 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. Three charter schools are currently in operation in Jackson, and a fourth is set to open in Clarksdale in the fall of 2018. 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.
If the judge rules in favor of the parents and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Legislature will be tasked with devising another method of funding charter schools. The appeals process, however, would likely delay a solution even further, putting charter schools in a deeper state of limbo.
Bardwell and other plaintiffs attorneys called a status conference before the judge last week, and he said from that experience “we are optimistic that the Legislature will get a chance to face the issue in 2019.”
Regardless of which way the judge rules, the lawsuit has had somewhat of a chilling effect on charter schools in the state. For one, New Orleans-based Collegiate Academies withdrew its application to open a charter school in the state shortly after the lawsuit was filed in 2016.
“I think it sort of operates as a way of discouraging more experienced operators from coming here and may be the cause of some families not being willing to try charter schools out because they don’t know what the funding situation is going to be,” said Krystal Cormack, chair of the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board.