Jody Owens, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Mississippi

A Mississippi school district and two education organizations are throwing their support behind an ongoing legal battle that argues how charter schools are funded is unconstitutional.

On Aug. 15, the Clarksdale Municipal School District, Mississippi Association of Educators and Education Law Center filed amicus briefs in support of the the Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center’s lawsuit that claims charter schools strip much needed funds from the Jackson Public School District.

The SPLC filed the lawsuit in 2016 on behalf of a group of Jackson parents who said the state’s charter school law is unconstitutional and harmful to students in the Jackson Public School District.

The lawsuit points to the Mississippi constitution, which says that a school district’s ad valorem taxes – or local funding – may only be used for the district to maintain schools it oversees and says the Legislature must not appropriate any money to a school that is not a “free school.”

State law dictates that charter schools are free public schools that do not charge tuition and do not operate under the supervision of a school district. They report to the Charter School Authorizer Board, which approves which schools can open in the state.

Currently ReImagine Prep, Midtown Public Charter School and Joel E. Smilow Prep operate as middle schools in Jackson. Joel E. Smilow Collegiate opened this school year as an elementary school. Clarksdale Collegiate Prep started school this month.

In February, Hinds County Judge Dewayne Thomas struck a blow to the case, finding insufficient evidence that charter schools are funded in a way that violates state laws. The case is currently on appeal in the Mississippi Supreme Court.

In their supreme court brief, the SPLC writes “This case is not about whether charter schools are good or bad. This case is also not about whether the Legislature has the authority to allow charter schools in Mississippi.” Instead, the group argues, the case is about whether the Legislature can force a district to give charter schools tax funds it has levied.

The Mississippi Association of Educators’ amicus brief details troubles charter schools have faced historically and nationally, and points out that the ones operating in Mississippi have posted “mediocre performance” thus far.

“…Dollars diverted to charter schools are unavailable to fund solutions that have a track record of helping struggling students,” the brief states. “Mississippi can ill afford to squander these scarce public resources.”

Students wait in line after eating breakfast on the first day of school at Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School Wednesday, July 25, 2018.

Clarksdale Municipal School District superintendent Dennis Dupree has been a vocal opponent to charter schools, particularly since the authorizer board approved the opening of Clarksdale Collegiate. The district references in its brief other types of public schools in the state like the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science and the Mississippi School of the Arts, which are public schools but do not take tax dollars from local districts.

The Education Law Center is a nonprofit education advocacy organization based in Newark, New Jersey. In their brief, they state the underfunded school district serves a high amount of low-income students —  census data shows 35 percent of children in JPS ages 5 to 17 lived in poverty in 2016— and serving those students requires additional resources.

The case is still waiting on a ruling in the Mississippi Supreme Court.

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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.