On Tuesday, a judge struck a blow to Mississippi charter school opponents by upholding constitutionality of the state law that established charter schools.

In a judgment, Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Dewayne Thomas said the court found insufficient evidence that charter schools are funded in a way that violates state laws.

In a statement, Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board Chair Krystal Cormack said she was pleased with the ruling.

“We are hopeful that this court decision will encourage additional qualified operators to apply for charter schools in Mississippi,” Cormack said. “Judge Thomas’ ruling affirms that charter schools in Mississippi are free public schools and are therefore eligible for public school funding.”

The decision comes after a longstanding legal battle that began in July 2016, when the Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of a group of Jackson parents who said the state’s charter school law was unconstitutional and harmful to students in the Jackson Public School District.

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

The lawsuit argued that a school is “free” if it does not charge tuition and is regulated by the state superintendent of education and the local school district superintendent.

In Mississippi, charter schools are overseen by the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board and allow teachers and administrators more flexibility in student instruction than traditional public schools, which fall under the state Board of Education.

Charter schools receive funding from 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 and also receive local dollars from local tax receipts. When a student enrolls in a charter school, money that would have gone to the public school district leaves with the student to the charter school.

Since the charter school law was passed in 2013, five charter schools have been approved. In Jackson, ReImagine Prep, Midtown Public Charter School and Joel E. Smilow Prep each currently operate as middle schools. Clarksdale Collegiate Prep was recently approved to open in the 2018-19 school year, and Joel E. Smilow Collegiate is set to open as an elementary school next year as well.

Both parties presented their arguments in Hinds County Chancery Court in April 2017, and in December. Thomas said that in his view, the issue of local tax dollars following students to charter schools is the crux of the lawsuit.

In his final ruling, Thomas wrote that because charter schools are prohibited from charging tuition, there was not sufficient evidence to prove they do not qualify as free schools.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves issued a statement in favor of the judge’s ruling Tuesday afternoon.

“I appreciate the Court for recognizing the Legislature’s responsibility to improve the education attainment level of all students,” Reeves said. “It’s time for the coalition of the status quo to stop fighting us in courts and join us in focusing on educating all Mississippi children.”

Attorneys for plaintiffs plan to appeal Tuesday’s decision.

“This decision is disappointing, but it does not end our fight for Mississippi’s children. We plan to appeal this case to the Mississippi Supreme Court because the future of our schools depends on it,” Will Bardwell, an attorney for the SPLC representing the parent group, said in a statement. 

“By the time the Supreme Court hears this case, Jackson schoolchildren will have lost millions of public dollars to privately operated charter schools. We owe it to every public school student in Mississippi to continue this fight.”

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.