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Despite win, Mississippi charter school funding fight is a long way from done

If the fight over the constitutionality of the state's charter school law was a football game, the second half will be decided by the Mississippi Supreme Court after charter school parents won the opening half.

Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Dewayne Thomas ruled against the Southern Poverty Law Center Tuesday, but the SPLC has already appealed his decision to the state supreme court.

Shadrack White, the director of the Mississippi Justice Institute who represented a group of charter school parents in the case, told Mississippi Matters that it could be as long as a year before the court rules in the case.

Judge Thomas' ruling explicitly stated that the burden of proof on any constitutional challenge is extremely high and he disagreed with the SPLC argument, which said that funding Mississippi's charter schools through state and local funds was unconstitutional since charter schools, according to the SPLC's complaint, were not "free schools."

The SPLC alleged that since charters aren't under the supervision of both the state superintendent and a local superintendent, they didn't fit the definition of "free schools." Thomas said in his decision since the charters don't charge tuition, they are indeed free schools.

"We now have a ruling from a chancery judge that this law is constitutional," White said. "It's going to be hard for the Southern Poverty Law Center to argue that not only we are wrong, but the judge who heard it in the first place is wrong."

The decision by the state supreme court will be a vital one for the future of school choice in Mississippi. If the high court was to overturn the decision, the funding for Mississippi's three charter schools, all located in Jackson, could be in jeopardy.

One positive for charter school proponents was the state supreme court's decision in a lawsuit brought by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and several school districts over whether the Legislature was bound by law to fully fund the state's K-12 education funding formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. The court declined to supersede the Legislature's authority as appropriators in the case.

Mississippi isn't the only battleground over charter school funding.

Louisiana's 40 type 2 charter schools are authorized in areas with failing school districts and serve 20,000 students. In 2014, the Iberville Parish School District filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of state funding for charter schools. A January 2017 decision by the First Circuit Appellate Court prevents type 2 charter schools from receiving state funds and the case has been appealed to the state supreme court, where a ruling is expected soon.

A similar case will be going before the Washington state Supreme Court this month for the second time after a King County (Washington) judge ruled the state's reconfigured charter school law constitutional.

In 2015, Washington's high court ruled that it was unconstitutional for state funds to go to charter schools in a lawsuit brought by the state's teacher union, the Washington Education Association, with the League of Women Voters of Washington, El Centro de la Raza and the Washington Association of School Administrators.

Washington's Legislature later changed state law to fund charters with lottery funds, which the El Centro de la Raza is challenging with its latest lawsuit.

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