Charter schools’ use of tax dollars upheld, Mississippi Supreme Court throws out SPLC lawsuit

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The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision that the way charter schools are funded is constitutional.

There is not enough evidence to prove the way charter schools are funded in Mississippi is unconstitutional, according to a recent decision issued by the Mississippi Supreme Court.

In June, attorneys from the Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center and state Attorney General’s office argued in front of the court about the constitutionality of charter school funding. On Thursday, the court upheld a lower court’s decision that the plaintiffs “failed to demonstrate” that using tax dollars to help fund charter schools is unconstitutional.

“Today’s ruling is a loss for Mississippi’s 470,000 public schoolchildren, and for the taxpayers who will continue to see millions of public dollars drained from traditional public schools,” said SPLC senior supervising attorney Christine Bischoff.

The SPLC filed the lawsuit in 2016 on behalf of 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. In 2018, Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Dewayne Thomas ruled there was insufficient evidence that charter schools are funded in a way that violates state law, which led SPLC attorneys to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

Five justices concurred; one concurred in part and two dissented.

The concurring justices “… agree with the chancery court that the Plaintiffs did not meet their burden to demonstrate that Section 37-28-55 is unconstitutional,” Associate Justice Robert Chamberlin wrote on behalf of the court.

The line of code Chamberlin references refers to a section of Mississippi’s constitution, which states that a school district’s local funding shall be used for the district to “maintain its schools.” Although charter schools are categorized by the state department of education as local education agencies, or individual districts, the local school district they are geographically located in sends them funding based on enrollment.

Bischoff, the SPLC attorney, said the decision was just wrong.

“The decision rests on the Court’s conclusion that charter schools are not considered their own school districts. But the Mississippi Charter Schools Act could not be clearer: a charter school is a ‘local educational agency,’ which is another name for a school district. This decision is simply incorrect.”

In Justice Leslie King’s dissenting opinion, which Justice James Kitchens joined, he wrote “This Court should not be a rubber stamp for Legislative policies it agrees with when those policies are unconstitutional.”

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

The court did acknowledge validity with part of SPLC’s argument. Charles and Evelyn Araujo said they have faced harm as a result of charter schools pulling ad valorem taxes from their local school district. Since the couple lives in Jackson (they have children enrolled in Jackson Public Schools) and pay ad valorem taxes, “…the Plaintiffs are not simply general taxpayers challenging general governmental spending as unconstitutional,” the opinion said. “…the Plaintiffs experience a different, adverse effect than the general public due to the alleged unconstitutional spending of the ad valorem taxes.”

There are currently six charter schools open in Jackson and Clarksdale, and two more have been approved to open in the future. The Charter School Authorizer Board meets on Monday to approve or deny prospective applicants from this year’s application cycle.