Four public school parents handed partial victory in uniform education case

Four public school parents handed partial victory in uniform education case
(Source: Ryan Sjoberg)

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Four parents of students in Jackson and Yazoo City public schools have been granted a partial victory in their suit to require Mississippi to provide uniform public education to all.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Fifth Court of Appeals vacated the decision of a lower court denying the parent’s right to sue state officials for violating federal law.

The parents filed suit against multiple state leaders in 2017, arguing that Mississippi’s current constitution violates conditions of the 1868 Mississippi Readmission Act.

At the heart of the matter is whether parents can force the state to adhere to that act, which requires Mississippi to provide equal rights for education to all students.

State officials argued they could not be sued under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the U.S. District Court agreed.

The Fifth disagreed, though, saying that while the state itself could not be sued, its leaders could be.

Mississippi leaders asked the Fifth to reconsider the case, but in December, the court denied that request in a 9-8 decision.

Leaders with the Southern Poverty Law Center applaud the ruling, saying they will continue to fight for equal education in the state.

SPLC brought the case in 2017 on behalf of four parents, who had children enrolled in Jackson and Yazoo City schools.

“It is a sad fact that, in 2020, the Mississippi Constitution offers schoolchildren even less protection than it did in the 19th century,” SPLC Senior Staff Attorney Will Bardwell said. “The Fifth Circuit’s ruling that schoolchildren and their parents may sue Mississippi’s officials for that failure is a welcome step toward righting that wrong, but it must not be the last step.”

According to the suit, parents claim that the state does not provide equal education to all students, a violation of the Mississippi Readmission Act.

The 152-year-old law granted Mississippi the right to again have representation in Congress following the Civil War.

Provisions mandated that the state never amend its constitution in a way that would deprive citizens of any class “of the school rights and privileges secured … by the state.”

However, plaintiffs argued that the most recent amendment to the constitution, which removed the constitution’s uniformity clause, does just that.

According to the state’s 1868 constitution, “it shall be the duty of the Legislature to encourage, by all suitable means, the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral and agricultural improvement, by establishing a uniform system of free public schools, by taxation or otherwise, for all children between the ages of five and 21 years.”

Since 1868, the constitution has been amended four times, including in 1987, when that uniformity clause was replaced with a provision requiring the legislature to “provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of free public schools upon such conditions and limitations as the Legislature may prescribe.”

According to court records, parents say that free doesn’t translate into uniform.

“Plaintiffs allege that the removal of the uniformity clause has caused significant disparities in the educational resources, opportunities, and outcomes afforded to children in Mississippi based on their race and the race of their classmates.”

Parents pointed to the condition of the school facilities, as well as the academic outcomes at their children’s respective schools.

Students mentioned in the lawsuit attended Raines Elementary School in Jackson and Webster Street Elementary in Yazoo City.

According to court records, more than 95 percent of the student bodies at both schools are African American. Similarly, more than 95 percent of students at both schools live in poverty, as evidenced by their eligibility to receive free or reduced-price lunch, court records state.

“Fewer than 11 percent of students at these schools are proficient in reading and math, and the schools are currently ‘D’ rated by the Mississippi Department of Education,’ court records state.

By comparison, three school districts that are predominately white and higher-income have much higher math and reading proficiency rates, the parents argued.

Plaintiffs say that the disparities go beyond academic performance, with those same white schools having better facilities, more experienced staffers, and more extra-curricular offerings.

Citing those factors, the four brought suit in federal district court.

The district court tossed the case, arguing that it violated the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Fifth Circuit, though, remanded the case back to the district court, saying the parents could sue state officials to “redress an ongoing violation of federal law.”

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