A weak case against charters

A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of how Mississippi’s charter schools are funded reflects a misperception about what exactly charter schools are.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which made oral arguments before the Mississippi Supreme Court on Tuesday, points to a section of the state constitution about how public schools are funded.

“There shall be a state common-school fund, to be taken from the General Fund in the State Treasury, which shall be used for the maintenance and support of the common schools. Any county or separate school district may levy an additional tax, as prescribed by general law, to maintain its schools,” Section 206 of the state constitution reads.

That allows for the state to fund public schools as well as counties and cities to levy property taxes to support their schools. The SPLC argues in this case that charter schools in Jackson aren’t the city’s schools and thus the city should not send a portion of its property taxes toward supporting them. Mississippi Today reported that the Jackson Public School District has paid more than $8.7 million in property taxes since they began operating a few years ago.

The attorney general’s office, which is representing the state in the case, maintains that what matters is the students in the city are served, not which school or district serves them.

“The question then is, what are the schools of the district? Are the schools controlled by the local school board? Or are they the public schools that are used by the taxed district’s students? I think it’s the latter,” Krissy Nobile, an attorney for the AG’s office, was quoted as saying by Mississippi Today in her arguments before the state Supreme Court.

She is right: The whole goal is to serve students, not create taxpayer-funded monopolies for public school districts.

Charter schools are public schools: They receive taxpayer money and enroll students from the area they serve. As such, they are entitled to the proportionate share of the property taxes levied for education in that area. It’s not robbing the existing public school district because it is no longer having to serve those students and, thus, should have less of an expense.

The constitutional argument is a weak front for a general opposition to charter schools, mostly from entrenched powers in the education bureaucracy. A Hinds County chancellor already rejected the SPLC’s arguments, and it is now appealing to the state’s high court.

Poor families deserve an option for their children’s education if their public school district is failing them. That’s why Mississippi decided in 2013 to begin experimenting with charter schools.

Admittedly, it has been a disappointment so far. The charters, most of which are in Jackson, have not performed any better than the regular public schools.

But here’s what makes charter schools more accountable: The state Charter School Authorizer Board can pull their charter if they’re not passing muster. It should do that to the unsuccessful charter schools in Jackson and give someone else a shot. That element of the free market is what makes charter schools an appealing option.

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