Will Mississippi Supreme Court Allow Privately-Operated Charter Schools to Keep Seizing Public Funds from Public Schools?

A high-level court case is currently underway in Mississippi to decide if privately-operated charter schools can keep siphoning local property taxes from public schools.

Presently, Mississippi’s charter school law unconstitutionally diverts millions of dollars in local property tax money (ad valorem taxes) away from local public school districts to privately-operated charter schools.

Defenders of public schools and the public interest rightly note that privately-operated charter schools are harming public schools by draining money away from them and that opening more charter schools will only make things worse. They say that if privately-run charter schools are going to operate in Mississippi, they should find another source of funding.

Charter schools are not public schools in the proper sense of the word, therefore they have no valid or legitimate claim to public funds. Privately-operated charter schools differ legally, philosophically, organizationally, and operationally from public schools. To treat both types of schools as public and entitled to public funds is erroneous, misleading, and dishonest.

In Mississippi and other states, only public schools under local control by publicly elected individuals can receive local tax dollars raised by residents of the district. Charter schools are run by unelected bodies that are not answerable to the community. Charter schools do not operate under a local school district and are not under the control of the residents of public school districts, which means residents have no say over the charter schools that are siphoning their money. It is a form of taxation without representation.

Putting aside the poor academic performance of thousands of nonprofit and for-profit charter schools across the country, why should the public tax dollars of residents go to charter schools that are privately-governed, do not follow many public laws, and are not accountable to the community? Why should local property tax dollars go to schools exempt from local supervision? Why should a school district be required to share its maintenance tax levy with other school districts, let alone privately-operated charter schools?

In Mississippi, privately-operated charter schools receive public funding even though they are exempt from the oversight of the state Board of Education, the Mississippi Department of Education, and local boards of education. Low accountability and scant transparency have plagued the segregated and deunionized charter school sector for more than 27 years.

It is also important to stress that local public funds, as well as state and federal public funds, belong to schools, not students per se. The public funding of public schools is an issue that goes well beyond individual students. Public funds do not simply fund isolated free-floating individual students; they fund schools, their infrastructure, their employees, their programs, their future, the community, and more. Individual students are not the only ones benefiting from local property taxes.

Charter school advocates in Mississippi are trying desperately to arbitrarily change the meaning of many words to maintain their illegitimate ability to siphon millions of public dollars every year from public schools. They are eager to change the legal definition, identity, and relations that have long shaped and governed public schools in America. This may be one of the most under-reported and unexamined coups of the public by wealthy private interests in a while.

Mississippi passed its charter school law in 2013 and currently has only a handful of privately-operated charter schools.

Mississippi Supreme Court justices are expected to issue a ruling in the three-year-old case “in due course.” Given the current neoliberal context, more courts are abandoning the public interest and ruling on the basis of neoliberal ideology. Thus, there is a good chance that the Mississippi Supreme court will rule to allow millions of public dollars to keep flowing to privately-operated charter schools.

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at stell5@naz.edu.. Read other articles by Shawgi.