Mississippi’s Charter School Funding Challenged in Court
On July 11, 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center backed a lawsuit by several parents (also on behalf of their children) against Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, the Mississippi Department of Education, and the Jackson Public School District; the suit challenges the constitutionality of using ad valorem tax money and per-pupil funding to fiscally support charter schools in Mississippi (as per the Charter Schools Act of 2013, or CSA).
The gist of the suit involves giving public money to schools that are not overseen by the state and district. An excerpt from the suit:
Section 206 of the Mississippi Constitution provides that a school district’s ad valorem taxes may only be used for the district to maintain its own schools. Under the CSA, public school districts must share ad valorem revenue with charter schools that they do not control or supervise. Therefore, the local funding stream of the CSA is unconstitutional.
Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution forbids the Legislature from appropriating money to any school that is not operating as a “free school.” A “free school” is not merely a school that charges no tuition; it must also be regulated by the State Superintendent of Education and the local school district superintendent. Charter schools– which are not under the control of the State Board of Education, the State Superintendent of Education, the Mississippi Department of Education, the local school district superintendent, or the local school district– are not “free schools.” Accordingly, the state funding provision of the CSA is unconstitutional. …
The CSA heralds a financial cataclysm for public school districts across the state. … The future is clear: as a direct result of the unconstitutional CSA funding provisions, traditional public schools will have fewer teachers, books, and educational resources.
The suit refers to three charter schools already open in Jackson and an additional 14 planning to open– with 11 of the 14 intending to set up shop in Jackson.
The CSA language is clear in its intent that the “money should follow the child,” so to speak, with the state department of education being directed to pay the charter schools “for each student in average daily attendance at the charter school equal to the state share of the adequate education program payments for each student in daily average attendance at the school district in which the charter school is located.” Similar language speaks to also paying ad valorem tax money to the charters.
A chief flaw in the logic of money following students is that the overhead of running a school and district is not proportionally reduced. The costs of water, electricity, building maintenance, and transportation (to name a few) do not proportionally decrease when the funding leaves with the child– and the money does not automatically return if and when the child returns to the traditional public school after completing a partial year at the charter school.
But this is not the focal point of the lawsuit. The suit concerns state constitutionality of funding public schools that are overseen by the state and district. Thus, the state’s slicing away at district funding in the name of school choice is not the same as the state’s overseeing the schools. Handing off funding does not constitute oversight.
In September 2015, the Washington State Supreme Court declared the state’s charter school law void because the state’s constitution provides for the funding of “common schools”– those overseen by elected boards. In March 2016, the Washington legislature passed a bill to fund charter schools using lottery proceeds.
We’ll see how Mississippi handles the challenge to the legality of its charter school funding.
The Democratic Party recently revised its education platform to include language that charter schools should not “destabilize” traditional public schools. In keeping with such an idea, it seems logical (imperative?) for lawmakers to consider the public school funding and oversight protections written into their own state constitutions before advancing charter school legislation dependent upon misappropriated funding.