Appeals court says lawsuit over Mississippi school funding disparities can continue

Published 4:43 pm Friday, April 3, 2020

A federal appeals court has revived a lawsuit that says Mississippi allows grave disparities in funding between predominantly black and predominantly white schools.

The Thursday ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reverses the 2019 decision by U.S. District Judge William H. Barbour to dismiss a lawsuit filed against state officials by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The suit was filed in 2017 on behalf of low-income African American women who said their children and other black children attended schools that were in worse condition and had lower academic performance than some wealthier, predominantly white schools.

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Barbour said state officials were immune from being sued. The appeals court said sovereign immunity “is not limitless” and people may sue a state as long as the suit seeks changes going forward and not compensation for past practices.

The lawsuit said Mississippi was violating a federal law that allowed the state to rejoin the union after the Civil War. The 1870 law said Mississippi could not change its 1868 state constitution in a way to deprive any citizen of “school rights and privileges.” The state now has a constitution that was adopted in 1890 and has been amended several times.

“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 lawsuit says.

Will Bardwell, an attorney for Southern Poverty Law Center, said Friday that the case will go forward.

“We get what we always wanted, which is a chance to prove our case — that Mississippi is violating this federal law,” Bardwell told The Associated Press.

The Mississippi attorney general’s office argued in court papers in 2018 that the plaintiffs were seeking to “refashion” the 1870 federal law “into a contorted federal mandate that would place the State of Mississippi in a straitjacket so far as the educational provisions of the State’s Constitution are concerned.”

The plaintiffs’ children in 2017 were attending elementary schools that were 95% black and where 95% of students were receiving free or reduced price lunches — an indicator of poverty.

The suit said that fewer than 11% of students at their children’s schools were proficient in reading and math, and the schools had a D rating from the state. They contrasted that to three higher-income, mostly white schools in Madison County, DeSoto County and Gulfport, where more than 65% of students were proficient in reading and math and the schools had an A rating.

The lawsuit also said that schools attended by the plaintiffs’ children had wet ceilings, chipping paint and inexperienced teachers, compared to the other schools with extensive resources and extracurricular activities and experienced teachers.