Black children in Mississippi schools are being denied their right to equal education, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of four black mothers who say that their children’s rights have been violated. The group is calling for a federal judge to mandate that leaders enforce a 1870 law that says the state isn’t allowed to deprive anyone of “school rights and privileges.”
The SPLC stated in the lawsuit that instead of providing a “uniform system of free public schools” to all kids in accordance with the post-Civil War law, Mississippi has been out of compliance with its own constitution.
“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 suit claims.
It cites a 1934 amendment to exclude 5-year-old children from its protection, a 1960 amendment to eliminate key education rights and a 1987 amendment that grants the legislature “unfettered discretion to provide for public education as it sees fit.”
The plaintiffs are complaining that their children’s elementary schools lack textbooks, teachers, basic supplies, computers, extracurricular activities and even toilet paper. Their schools are populated by overwhelmingly black children and located in the Jackson Public School District and the Yazoo City Municipal School District, which both received an “F” rating by the state’s education department, the SPLC says.
In the lawsuit, one mother, Precious Hughes, described her 6-year-old daughter’s school as “old, dark and gloomy ― like a jail.” The parent said teachers at Raines Elementary are frequently absent and the school doesn’t have enough textbooks for everyone. She also said she’s asked to bring soap and paper towels for the school twice a year.
The SPLC says paint is peeling off of the school’s walls, “water spots are visible on the ceilings, and lunches sometimes have curdled milk and rotten fruit.” They also report that only 10 percent of the school’s students are proficient in reading and only 4 percent are proficient in math.
“I can’t afford to move my family to one of the school districts,” Hughes said during a Tuesday press conference, WLBT reported. “I know I’m not the only mother who feels this way.”
The lawsuit names Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, all Republican elected officials, as defendants. State school Superintendent Carey Wright and the nine appointed members of the state Board of Education are also named as defendants.
Bryant issued a statement on Tuesday opposing the lawsuit.
“This is merely another attempt by the Southern Poverty Law Center to fundraise on the backs of Mississippi taxpayers,” the governor said. “While the SPLC clings to its misguided and cynical views, we will continue to shape Mississippi’s system of public education into the best and most innovative in America.”
Bryant and Reeves say that the state’s school system is improving under their leadership, but black schools in the state are still suffering.
The SPLC reports that the 19 Mississippi school districts that received an “F” rating from the state are more than 81 percent African American. In contrast, the top five school districts in the state are predominantly white. Black children in the state are at an even greater disadvantage considering that Mississippi ranks second to last for student performance achievement in the United States.
“Mississippi is failing its most vulnerable children ― those living in the shadow of a Jim Crow system that deliberately undermined education rights in the name of white supremacy,” said Will Bardwell, senior staff attorney in the group’s Jackson office, according to the SPLC. “The state’s education system is shamefully inequitable and anything but uniform.”