February 14, 2018 10:56:56 AM
JACKSON -- A judge upheld Mississippi's charter school law Tuesday, rejecting a constitutional challenge that sought to cut off state and local money to the schools.
Hinds County Chancery Judge Dewayne Thomas ruled that diversions of local property taxes to charter schools are acceptable, and that the schools don't need to be overseen by a local or state superintendent.
"This court cannot find that plaintiffs herein have proven unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt," Thomas wrote.
A group of plaintiffs, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Will Bardwell, plans to appeal the decision. Bardwell said he filed a notice of appeal Tuesday afternoon.
"Obviously we disagree, but this case was always going to be decided by the Mississippi Supreme Court, at the end of the day, and we are happy to have a chance to present our argument to them," Bardwell said.
Mississippi has three charter schools with almost 1,000 students. Two more schools, one in Jackson and one in Clarksdale, are scheduled to open next fall. Supporters say the alternate form of public schools, run by private nonprofits, provide innovative alternatives to struggling public schools.
"This was a frivolous attempt by the Democrats and their allies to usurp the lawmaking authority of the Legislature and prohibit parents from having options when it comes to their child's education," Gov. Phil Bryant wrote in a tweet.
Opponents, though, say charter schools drain needed money from school districts. The three Jackson schools have received more than $1.5 million in local money so far. The lawsuit didn't seek to outlaw charter schools directly, but asked Thomas to rule that both local and state funding streams were illegal.
An earlier decision by the state Supreme Court struck down a transfer of property-tax money from Pascagoula-Gautier to other school districts. The plaintiffs argued that the decision should extend to prohibiting the transfer of local property tax money to charter schools. Thomas rejected that argument, saying the earlier case was different because the students of the district losing the money saw no benefit.
"In the current action, the Legislature provided for local taxes to follow the local students," Thomas wrote. "If a taxpayer parent of a particular school district chooses to send their child to a public charter school, the local tax follows that child."
At the hearing, the state argued that local districts have long sent local tax money to other districts through student transfers.
Thomas also said that schools don't need to be supervised by state and local superintendents to qualify as a "free school" under the Mississippi Constitution. Instead, he adopted the state's argument that since charter schools are legally forbidden from charging money, they meet the definition.
"A free school is a school which does not charge tuition," Thomas wrote.
Bardwell cited that as a particular point of disagreement.
"The Mississippi Supreme Court has held for more than 100 years that the only schools entitled to be treated as free schools are those under a local superintendent and the state superintendent, and by design, charter schools are exempt from both," he said.
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