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Mississippi parents win right to intervene in charter school lawsuit

By   /   September 28, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo by Steve Wilson

SUCCESS: Mississippi Justice Institute director Mike Hurst with some of the charter school parents who have joined other charter advocates in fighting a lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center that threatens school funding.

Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Dewayne Thomas ruled Wednesday that a group of parents, the state’s charter school association and Midtown Public Charter School can intervene in a lawsuit that threatens funding for Mississippi charter schools.

In July, the Southern Poverty Law Center and some parents of Jackson Public School District students filed a lawsuit in Hinds County Chancery Court challenging the constitutionality of charter school funding in Mississippi. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, the Mississippi Department of Education and the JPS are listed as defendants in the case.

The state’s 2013 charter school law allows charters to receive money from the school district where they are located and from Mississippi Department of Education per-pupil funds.

Related: Mississippi charter school parents intervene in funding lawsuit

“These parents just want a voice in this proceeding,” said Mike Hurst,  director of the nonprofit Mississippi Justice Institute, who is representing the parents. “If the Southern Poverty Law Center is successful, the charter schools will be shut down and these parents will have to send their children to schools that aren’t meeting their needs.”

All three of the state’s charters are located within the boundaries of the Jackson Public School District, which earned a D-grade in the latest school accountability ratings by the state Education Department.

Michael Bentley, counsel for Midtown Public Charter School, said an adverse ruling in the case could cost the school $890,000 a year.

The SPLC’s attorney, Lydia Wright, argued that intervention by the three parties was unnecessary because the rights of the parents, the association and Midtown were represented by the attorney general and would only clog up the proceedings with “more bodies and more paperwork.” The SPLC has filed for a ruling of summary judgement in the case.

The JPS concurred with all of the SPLC’s legal points in its July response to the lawsuit.

The trial could begin as early as next spring.

Related: Charter school defenders circle wagons in Mississippi against lawsuit

The lawsuit says the existence of the three charters resulted in $1.85 million being transferred from JPS coffers in violation of the state’s constitution because the charters are not subject to regulation from the JPS board or the Mississippi Department of Education. The lawsuit also says that with the addition of a third school charter school, Smilow Prep, that opened this fall, the amount of money sent to charter schools by the JPS could be as much as $4 million.

A state board, the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board, approves applications from charter operators and regulates them. While the SPLC lawsuit decries the growth of charters as a threat to public school funding, the board declined to authorize any new charters this year.

An Ohio-based school operator’s bid to open three elementary schools in Jackson was rejected by a 4-2 vote, and a New Orleans-based operator withdrew its proposal before it reached a vote.

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Steve Wilson is the Mississippi reporter for Watchdog.org. Beginning his career as a sports writer, he has worked for the Mobile Press-Register (Ala.), the LaGrange Daily News (Ga.), Highlands Today (Fla.),McComb Enterprise-Journal (Miss.), the Biloxi Sun Herald(Miss.) and the Vicksburg Post (Miss.) Steve's work has appeared on Fox News, the Huffington Post and the Daily Signal. His bachelor's degree is in journalism with a minor in political science from the University of Alabama. Steve is also a member of the Mississippi Press Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He served four-plus years in the United States Coast Guard after his high school graduation and is a native of Mobile, Ala.