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SPLC: Fifth Circuit Decision Affirms Parents’ Right to Sue Mississippi for a Uniform Public Education System

JACKSON, Miss. – In a 9-8 decision yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied Mississippi state officials’ request for rehearing in Williams v. Reeves after a 3-member panel of the court ruled in April that the plaintiffs, parents of public schoolchildren, could bring a lawsuit for the failure to provide a uniform system of public schools, as required under a federal law that allowed the state to rejoin the United States following the American Civil War. 

Four Black mothers, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), brought the case in May 2017 on behalf of their children who were receiving a public education inferior to students at high-performing, majority-white public schools. The following statement is from Will Bardwell, SPLC senior staff attorney

“One hundred and fifty years ago, Congress permitted Mississippi to rejoin the country after seceding during the American Civil War, in part, on the condition that it never deprive children of the school rights then contained in Mississippi’s state constitution.

“It is a sad fact that, in 2020, the Mississippi Constitution offers schoolchildren even less protection than it did in the 19th century, chipped away by illegal constitutional amendments over time. The Fifth Circuit’s ruling that schoolchildren and their parents may sue Mississippi’s officials for that failure is a welcome step toward righting that wrong, but it must not be the last step. 

“Today, 80 percent of Mississippi’s highest performing school districts are majority-white, and all of its failing school districts are majority-Black. More than 100 years since Reconstruction and 66 years after Brown v. Board, Mississippi continues to operate two types of schools: high-performing schools for white children and failing schools for Black children. 

“We will not stop fighting until Mississippi is held to its obligation to provide a uniform system of public schools that offers Black students the same access to a high-quality education as their white peers.”