Separate and Unequal Still: Lawsuit Alleges Mississippi Intentionally Deprives Black Children of Decent Education

Jody Owens, director of the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, holds up a copy of a lawsuit filed on behalf of four African-American mothers with children in public elementary schools during a news conference in Jackson. (AP Photo /Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi is denying good schools to African-American students in violation of the federal law that enabled the state to rejoin the union after the Civil War, a legal group alleged Tuesday.

The Southern Poverty Law Center wants a federal judge to force state leaders to comply with the 1870 law, which says Mississippi must never deprive any citizen of the “school rights and privileges” described in the state’s first post-Civil War constitution.

That law still obligates Mississippi to provide a “uniform system of free public schools” for all children, but the state has instead watered down education protections in a white-supremacist effort to prevent the education of Blacks, the group said.

“From 1890 until the present day, Mississippi repeatedly has amended its education clause and has used those amendments to systematically and deliberately deprive African-Americans of the education rights guaranteed to all Mississippi schoolchildren by the 1868 Constitution,” the suit states.

The named defendants include Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, all Republican elected officials. It also names state school Superintendent Carey Wright and the nine appointed members of the state Board of Education.

Mississippi’s public schools have stubbornly ranked at or near the bottom of national measures of academic achievement and progress. But Bryant and Reeves said Mississippi’s education system is improving under their leadership.

“This is merely another attempt by the Southern Poverty Law Center to fundraise on the backs of Mississippi taxpayers,” the governor said in a statement. “While the SPLC clings to its misguided and cynical views, we will continue to shape Mississippi’s system of public education into the best and most innovative in America.”

Reeves called the SPLC a “fringe organization,” and said it’s “almost laughable” that the legal group is simultaneously trying to “protect the status quo” by challenging efforts to direct public funds to charter schools that would provide more choices to minority students.

Attorney Will Bardwell says the suit, filed on behalf of four African-American mothers with children in public elementary schools, seeks equal opportunities and outcomes. He said Mississippi’s leaders are welcome to comply without increasing spending if they can.

“I’m filing this lawsuit because the state has an obligation to make the schools that Black kids attend equal to the schools that white kids attend,” said Indigo Williams, the parent of a first-grade boy at Raines Elementary School in west Jackson.

All 19 Mississippi school districts rated “F” by the Mississippi Department of Education have overwhelmingly African-American student bodies, while the state’s five highest-performing school districts are predominantly white, the SPLC says.

The schools attended by the plaintiffs’ children “lack textbooks, literature, basic supplies, experienced teachers, sports and other extracurricular activities, tutoring programs and even toilet paper,” the SPLC said.

Mississippi already faces a lawsuit over statewide public school funding. Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove represents 21 districts demanding the state money they say they were shorted under the public school funding formula between 2010 and 2015.

Musgrove said the Legislature can’t evade a 2006 law requiring it to fund the amount required by the formula. He also argues that the funding law is reinforced by the current constitution.

The SPLC suit takes a sharply different view of the current law and constitution.

Its lawsuit recites changes to the provision, including a 1960 amendment that made public schools optional and could have allowed Mississippi to close public schools to avoid racial integration.

That change was partially reversed in 1987, when voters amended the state constitution to again make public schools mandatory, but the amendment didn’t require a uniform system, and said lawmakers could impose “such conditions and limitations as the Legislature may prescribe.”

“This is one of the weakest education clauses in America because its mandate creates virtually no obligations that the Legislature does not choose for itself,” the suit states.

That’s close to the view of proponents of Initiative 42, a failed attempt in 2015 to amend Mississippi’s constitution yet again to require “an adequate and efficient system of public schools,” and allow people to sue over funding shortfalls.

Tuesday’s lawsuit, if successful, could also set the stage for such suits. Bardwell said if the SPLC wins and state officials don’t follow the revised constitutional mandates, the organization could sue again for more specific remedies.

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