Education Law

Lawsuit alleges Mississippi deprives black children of equal educational opportunities

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The Southern Poverty Law Center has sued the state of Mississippi, alleging it’s systematically failing to fund schools in majority-black areas, The Associated Press and the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

Four mothers of children in elementary schools are the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit that turns on an 1870 law made as a condition of Mississippi’s re-entry into the Union after the Civil War. That law requires the state to provide a “uniform system of free public schools” for all children, an SPLC press release says. The mothers argue that state legislators have repeatedly amended the education clause of their constitution to eliminate education rights and, prior to the 1950s, segregate schools.

As a result, the lawsuit (PDF) says, African-American children today receive a significantly worse education than their white peers.

“Mississippi has one of the most inequitable and poorly resourced, poorly performing school systems in the nation,” the lawsuit says. “Mississippi has not come close to fulfilling its obligation to ensure a ‘uniform system of free public schools.’”

The lawsuit says Mississippi lawmakers have repeatedly diluted the language of the education clause in their post-Civil-War state constitution, which was the language the Readmission Act required it to keep. Mississippians have amended the clause four times, each of which violated the act since it was enacted 147 years ago.

The most recent revision, in 1987, gave the state legislature nearly unlimited power over public schools; the legislature has thereafter refused to fully fund schools in poorer areas. This affects children in all Mississippi public schools, the lawsuit notes, but falls hardest on schools that are not predominately white.

The complaint says two of the plaintiffs’ children attend a school that lacks textbooks and other basic supplies; has snakes and fire ants infesting the playground; serves rotten food in the cafeteria; has non-functioning water fountains; and asks parents to donate soap and paper towels. That school’s student body is 99.1 percent African-American.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement that the case was a fundraising attempt from the SPLC. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves told the AP that the SPLC is also pursuing a lawsuit against public funding for charter schools—a contradiction, he said, because those schools would give families more choices.

The AP noted that Mississippi is already being sued by 21 school districts, and the state is being represented by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. The districts are seeking payments they say are required by a school funding formula, but were not paid between 2010 and 2015. That case relies on the 1987 state constitution, the AP says, even though the SPLC is arguing that constitution gives the legislature no accountability. A failed 2015 ballot measure would have permitted individuals to sue the state over funding shortfalls.

As the ABA Journal noted in March, there is also active litigation in Michigan alleging that systemic underfunding of Detroit Public Schools violates students there the fundamental right to literacy. (DPS students were 2.48 percent white in 2016-2017, according to the state Department of Education.) The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the argument that there is a fundamental right to an education, but the Detroit plaintiffs hope to use an issue left unresolved in that case to establish a fundamental right to literacy.

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