Mississippi may stand trial on allegations the state broke its promise to provide “a uniform system of free public schools.”
A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cleared the way Thursday for that possible trial before U.S. District Judge William H. Barbour Jr. in Jackson.
The lawsuit, filed by four African American mothers against the state, argues Mississippi’s public schools are far from uniform, failing to ensure that African Americans, the descendants of those once enslaved, “would receive an education equal to that received by white students.”
When the lawsuit was filed in 2017, then-Gov. Phil Bryant called the litigation “another attempt by the Southern Poverty Law Center to fundraise on the backs of Mississippi taxpayers. While the SPLC clings to its misguided and cynical views, we will continue to shape Mississippi’s system of public education into the best and most innovative in America.”
Gov. Tate Reeves has repeatedly pointed to improved reading scores as proof Mississippi has made huge strides. Bryant championed the program, which helped lead to Mississippi scoring first in the nation for gains in fourth-grade math and reading.
Reeves predicted the lawsuit would force the state to waste millions “that could be spent in our classrooms.”
Last year, Judge Barbour threw out the litigation brought by the four mothers, saying the state couldn’t be sued because of sovereign immunity.
On Thursday, the three-judge appellate panel disagreed, reversing his decision. The panel also concluded “the fact that a current violation can be traced to a past action does not bar relief. … (The) allegations are sufficiently forward-looking, and thus permissible.”
At the time the litigation was brought, the mothers’ children attended kindergarten or first grade in Jackson Public Schools or the Yazoo City Municipal School District, both of which had received an “F” rating.
According to the lawsuit, the students lacked textbooks, basic supplies, experienced teachers, tutoring programs, after-school literary programs and even toilet paper.
The litigation noted Mississippi mandates only a system of “free public schools,” arguing the lack of guarantee of uniformity has helped lead to such disparities.
When the lawsuit was filed in 2017, Indigo Williams said her 6-year-old son used to attend Madison Station Elementary School, where he learned from veteran teachers, took Taekwondo lessons, received fresh fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria, but he had none of the above at Raines Elementary School in Jackson.
Last year, a Millsaps College/Chism Strategies State of the State Survey showed nearly 70 percent of voters said they believed public schools deserved more funding.
Those same voters concluded that teachers’ pay needed to be raised. In January, Reeves signed his first bill into law, ensuring that the $1,500 pay raise given in 2019 would be fully funded.
Public school spending along racial lines
In the years following the Civil War, Mississippi held its first constitutional convention in 1868 in which African Americans were allowed to participate. Their breakthrough Constitution created “a uniform system of free public schools” for those ages 5 to 21, and divided school funds evenly among all children of school age.
Two years later, the state was readmitted to the Union, promising not to amend its state constitution to “deprive any citizen or class of citizens of the United States of the school rights and privileges” guaranteed by that Constitution.
The lawsuit alleges Mississippi didn’t keep its promise for “uniform” public schools for long.
In the years that followed, violence, fraud and a new Constitution in 1890 put an end to black voting, returning white supremacy to power.
With white policymakers back in charge, taxes were cut, school funding was whacked, segregation resumed, and state officials relied on favoritism, prejudice and the law to send the majority of money to all-white public schools.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld “separate but equal” schools, Mississippi’s segregated schools were far from equal.
In 1890, the state spent twice as much on white students as on black students. By 1935, the state spent more than three times more on white students.
By World War II, African-American students received only 13 percent of the education funding, despite making up 57 percent of the school-age children.
Black teachers, who took home the same pay as white teachers between 1877 and 1885, now made only 38 percent as much as white teachers.
In 1952, a state legislative committee on education concluded that Mississippi’s schools for black students in rural areas were “pathetic.”
Hundreds of black children are compelled to attend school in “unpainted, unheated and unlighted buildings that are not fit for human habitation and should have been condemned years ago,” the report concluded.
Despite the Supreme Court decision in 1954 that demanded an end to segregated schools, districts continued their spending along racial lines.
In Glendora, funding for the average white student was $464. Funding for the average black student? Less than $14.
In an analysis of education funding over the decades, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting determined that black students between 1890 and 1960 received more than $25 billion less in modern dollars than white students did.
Those representing the four mothers include William B. Bardwell and Christine Bischoff of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Jackson, Jason Zarow and others at the O’Melveny & Myers law firm in New York City, and Rita and Bill Bender of the Skellenger Bender law firm in Seattle.
The couple are veterans of the civil rights movement, and Rita Bender took part in Mississippi’s Freedom Summer. The Ku Klux Klan killed her then-husband, Michael Schwerner, along with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, who were all working in the movement. In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, convicted of orchestrating the killings, went to prison, where he died in 2018.
On Thursday, Rita Bender said, “We’re anxious to bring this case to trial, not only so that these children in the lawsuit have a chance, but so that all children in Mississippi can have a chance.”
Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that is exposing wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters. Sign up for MCIR’s newsletters here.