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Lawsuit filed against charter schools

JACKSON, Miss.- The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a suit Monday to block charter schools in Mississippi, according to a press release. 

The suit was filed on behalf of seven parents who send their children to Jackson Public Schools. The suit argues that charter schools violate the state constitution by allowing for school districts to share property tax collections with schools that are not controlled by them.

The suite calls to strike the funding provisions in the Mississippi Charter School Act according to a press release.

“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.”

The state has only two charter schools currently, both of which are located in Jackson. There is a third one set to open this year.

Attorney Mike Hurst says there is nothing illegal about the charter schools.

“These are free public schools that are supported to tax dollars. The parents who have students at the schools are tax payers, don’t they have the right to decide where their children go to school?” said Hurst.

“I don’t think everyone is thinking about these children, I think they’re only thinking about money,” said Gladys Overton, whose daughter attends a charter school. “The most important thing that we want to bring it back to is these children who need a good education and a receiving one where they are.”

Charter schools are run by nonprofit, private groups. They operate with a board and are separate from the local school district. They do however receive tax revenue from the district to operate.

Overton said that before her daughter was enrolled at a local charter school she was on several medications and seeing a therapist in order to cope with the environment she experienced at her public school. Now, Overton says her daughter doesn’t need the medication because her needs are being met at the charter school.

According to the release in one year about $1.85 million was diverted from public schools, that could have paid the salary of nearly 43 teachers in JPS.

“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.”

Empower Mississippi, a sponsor of the Mississippi Charter School Act has released a statement in regards to the suit:

Statement On Frivolous Charter School Lawsuit

Yesterday, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit in Hinds County Chancery Court challenging the constitutionality of Mississippi’s charter school law. Empower Mississippi President Grant Callen released the following statement:

It is unconscionable that an organization that purports to represent low income families would attack an institution that has opened new doors of opportunity for low income families in Jackson to finally have access to a quality educational setting. For decades, families in Jackson sought new education options for their children, and finally in 2015, with the opening of Reimagine Prep Charter School and Midtown Public Charter School, parents had a choice about where their children could attend school. While performance data is not yet available for these newly opened schools, we do know that over two hundred students voted with their feet to leave Jackson public schools and enroll in one of these new charter schools. Both schools are at maximum enrollment capacity and have a waiting list of students who wish they could attend.

If successful, this lawsuit by SPLC would snatch away the opportunity to attend a charter school and send these students back to the Jackson public schools from which they fled. A recently released audit conducted by the Mississippi Department of Education of the “D”-rated Jackson Public School District exposed profound problems within the district’s leadership and operations. Some of the most egregious findings from the audit include:

  • “The superintendent does not provide effective educational leadership…”
  • “The school board has failed to effectively perform its duties in its role of oversight.”
  • “Discipline policies are applied inconsistently.”
  • “School facilities are [not] maintained according to standards required for clean, safe, and orderly schools.”

For parents who have chosen a new school for their children, we find it inconceivable that SPLC would seek to impose their judgement over that of parents, and force these students to return to a district with such significant problems. In the months ahead, we intend to stand alongside parents in defending Mississippi’s charter school law. We will always advocate for a parent’s right to determine the best educational setting for their children. We find SPLC’s constitutional arguments unconvincing and trust the court will quickly reject this frivolous lawsuit.

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