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SPLC lawsuit: Mississippi charter school funding violates state constitution

Mississippi is funding its charter schools through an unconstitutional scheme that diverts public tax dollars from traditional public schools, according to a lawsuit filed today by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The lawsuit calls for the court to strike down the funding provisions of the Mississippi Charter School Act (CSA). The Mississippi Constitution requires schools to be under the supervision of the state and local boards of education to receive public funding. But under the CSA, charter schools receive public funding even though they are exempt from the oversight of the state Board of Education, the Mississippi Department of Education, and local boards of education.

Charter schools in Mississippi are accountable to the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board, a body that receives 3 percent of the public funding that goes to charter schools.

“A school operating outside the authority of the state board of education and the local school board cannot expect to receive public taxpayer money,” said Jody Owens, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Mississippi office. “The state constitution is clear on this matter.”

Two charter schools are currently operating in Mississippi, both within the boundaries of the Jackson Public School District (JPS). In one school year, more than $1.85 million was diverted from the district to fund them. That amount could have paid the salaries of 42 public school teachers, according to the complaint. Given that a third charter school is set to open within JPS’s geographic boundaries, the district stands to lose more than $4 million in the 2016-17 school year, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit warns that the opening of more charter schools will compound the financial harm. There are currently applications pending for four more charter schools. Each charter school would be located within the Jackson Public School District, drawing more funding from the district.

“I sent my children to a public school because I believe in traditional public schools,” said Cassandra Overton-Welchlin, a plaintiff in the case and mother of two children enrolled there. “I’m outraged that state and local tax dollars are funding charter schools in a way that threatens the existence of important services, including services for those with special needs, at my child’s school. As a taxpayer, I expect my property tax dollars will be used to support traditional public schools, which educate the vast majority of students in Jackson.”

The lawsuit was filed in the First Judicial District of the Chancery Court of Hinds County.