by LaJuana Davis, Professor of Law, Samford University Cumberland School of Law
Four mothers of Mississippi schoolchildren filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last week charging the state has failed to provide for public education under the requirements of an 1870 law that set conditions of the state’s readmission to the Union following the Civil War. The suit’s plaintiffs, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), have asked the court to void amendments to the state’s education article enacted after Reconstruction and restore education rights guaranteed under the 1868 constitution. Specifically, the suit claims that the state violated the Congressional Act of 1870 that conditioned Mississippi’s readmission to the Union on the state agreeing to never deprive its citizens of “school rights and privileges” secured by the 1868 state constitution. However, the complaint alleges, subsequent amendments to those school guarantees have resulted in a minimalist education clause that simply allows the legislature discretion to provide for whatever public school education that the legislature sees fit.
The suit’s lead defendant, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, responded in a statement that the suit was simply a fundraising attempt by SPLC “on the backs of Mississippi taxpayers.” While Gov. Bryant may be irritated by the second challenge to Mississippi’s education scheme brought by SPLC in a year, Mississippi has had far fewer education adequacy lawsuits than most states, largely due to the minimal standard of education that its state constitution requires.
Because Mississippi’s education clause requires no particular standard of education to be provided, the plaintiffs claim that some schoolchildren are learning in overcrowded classes taught by inexperienced teachers and that those children have access to fewer educational resources and opportunities than students in other school districts. Most of the inequalities are being shouldered by majority-Black school districts, which may be affecting their students’ academic achievement.