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Mississippi's School System Violates Post-Civil War Promises, Suit Claims

Citing a narrow post-Civil War-era provision, the Southern Poverty Law Center Tuesday filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that Mississippi's substandard and effectively segregated school system is a violation of a promise the state made 150 years ago in order to rejoin the Union.  

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Flanked by his plaintiffs, three tearful mothers, Will Bardwell, senior staff attorney in the SPLC's Jackson office, said at a news conference streamed on Facebook he is asking the federal government to force Mississippi's state leaders to create a more equitable school system among all children, as they promised to do in the state's 1868 constitution. He did not provide specific strategies.  

"Mississippi's education system is the weakest in the nation," Bardwell said.  "The time to right that wrong is today."

While state judges have more often than not been willing to force state legislatures to equalize school funding through their school funding formula (Mississippi's is currently being revised), they are typically reluctant to weigh in on exactly how to fix school systems, a sensitive and potentially politically explosive debate.  

Bardwell is essentially doing a run around Mississippi's state judges and asking the federal court system to force state officials to uphold provisions of the state's original constitution.  He referred to the idea as a "gift from the law gods."

In 1870, the federal government readmitted Mississippi into the Union on the condition that the state hold true to its constitution and not deprive "any class of children" of their right to a uniform system of free public schools .  

But, according to Bardwell, the state over the years boosted through its constitution the powers of its state legislature to maintain a segregated school system which systematically deprived students at majority black schools an adequate education.

Today, the state's black students typically attend decrepit school house buildings staffed by inexperienced and ineffective teachers, Bardwell said. All of the state's worst-performing schools are majority black, Bardwell pointed out.  

The four plaintiffs, Indigo Williams, Dorothy Haymer, Precious Hughes, and Sarde Graham, send their children to schools in Jackson and Yazoo City, Miss. that the state defines as failing.     

They are suing the state's governor, lieutenant governor, House and Senate leaders, state board of education, and state superintendent, who are responsible for carrying out the laws cited in the state's constitution. 

 Hughes, who started crying while describing the conditions at her daughter's school, asked, "How am I as a mother supposed to answer her when she asks why she can't attend a better school?" 

No Child Left Behind provided lawyers involved in school funding lawsuits a trove of data to enter into court as evidence to prove that a state's schools have systemically neglected historically disenfranchised students. The recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to collect and report testing data, in addition to school climate and teacher effectiveness data.  

In a number of states, lawyers in recent years have expanded their lawsuits to force legislatures provide an "adequate" and "equitable" amount of money to schools and also address the quality of school outcomes.  

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