Mississippi charter schools’ use of local tax dollars at the heart of case before the state Supreme Court

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Plaintiffs are asking the state Supreme Court “can the Legislature force a school district to share its maintenance tax levy with other school districts?”

Is it constitutional for local school districts to send their tax dollars to charter schools? That was the question at hand for Mississippi Supreme Court justices Tuesday.

Attorneys from the Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center and state Attorney General’s office presented oral arguments to debate the constitutionality of the way charter schools are funded. The hearing was the latest step in a longstanding legal battle.

In 2016, the SPLC filed the lawsuit on behalf of a group of Jackson parents who said the state’s charter school law, particularly the issue of local tax dollars going to them, is unconstitutional and harmful to students in the Jackson Public School District.

“Every dollar that’s diverted from Jackson Public Schools harms us,” said Charles Araujo, who is a plaintiff in the case with his wife Evelyn.

The couple has two children who graduated from the Jackson Public School District, and one who currently attends Murrah High School.

When court adjourned, the pair told reporters they did not get involved in the lawsuit because they oppose charter schools and understand that some parents choose to send their kids to them because they feel it’s the best option. Their issue is with how the schools are funded.

“When we lose money, then we lose things that we can wish for but don’t have,” Evelyn Araujo said. “That’s a harm that my child doesn’t have access to that sort of thing.”

In February 2018, Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Dewayne Thomas struck a blow to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit when he ruled there was insufficient evidence that charter schools are funded in a way that violates state law. SPLC attorneys appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

Tuesday’s argument centered around a specific provision in the Mississippi Constitution which says that a school district’s local funding, called ad valorem taxes, shall be used for the district to “maintain its schools.” Although charter schools are categorized by the state as local education agencies, or individual districts, the local school district they are geographically located in sends them funding based on enrollment.

This was the point of contention between the parties — using that constitutional language, if a charter school is technically an individual district, is a school district required to share its local tax dollars?

Public school districts receive local funding from ad valorem tax receipts. When a student enrolls in a charter school, money that would have gone to the district follows the student to the charter school instead.

The Jackson Public School District has paid more than $8.7 million to charter schools since they opened their doors. Five charter schools operated in Jackson and Clarksdale serving a range of grades K-8 during the 2018-19 school year. This fall, two K-8 charter schools will open in Jackson for the 2019-20 school year. The state’s first charter high school is scheduled to open in Jackson in the 2020-21 school year.

“Charter schools are not part of the district’s schools, and the Constitution says this tax can be collected but it can only be used on the district schools,” said SPLC attorney Christine Bischoff.

Bischoff frequently referenced an earlier Supreme Court case, Pascagoula School District v. Tucker. In that case, the district fought a new law requiring revenue that it collected from taxes levied on liquefied natural gas terminals and crude oil refineries in its district be distributed to the three other districts in the county. The court ultimately declared the law unconstitutional.

Parents have a simple question for the court, Bischoff said. “…can the Legislature force a school district to share its maintenance tax levy with other school districts? In Tucker as you’ll recall, this court said no.”

Krissy Nobile is an attorney for the state Attorney General’s office. In her argument, she told the court that local school tax levies (property tax collected by a district) apply to local students and not necessarily school districts.

“The question then is, what are the schools of the district? Are the schools controlled by the local school board? Or are they the public schools that are used by the taxed district’s students? I think it’s the latter, and I that’s exactly what this court said in Tucker,” Nobile said.

The Mississippi Legislature passed a law in 2013 to create charter schools. Charters are free public schools held to the same academic and accountability standards as traditional public schools, but the law allows for more flexibility for teachers and administrators when it comes to student instruction. Unlike traditional public schools, charters do not have school boards or operate under a local school district.

Charter schools in Mississippi are overseen by the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board, whereas traditional public schools fall under the state Board of Education.

Currently, a handful of schools that hope to launch in Greenwood, Canton, Magnolia and Vicksburg are working their way through the application process with the charter school authorizer board.

Justices did not rule from the bench, and members said they would issue a decision “in due course.”