A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals did something nobody expected in this political climate: They took public education seriously. Last month, the judges bucked their court’s conservative nature and opened the door to a trial over school funding, which conservative U.S. District Judge William H. Barbour had wanted dead.
Two years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Mississippi in U.S. District Court for encouraging a patchwork statewide school system that funnels money into mostly white schools while letting Black schools in poorer districts fall to pieces.
The behavior isn’t anything new, actually. It’s been going on for about a century. A few years after the Civil War, the federal government allowed traitorous Mississippi to readmit itself to the U.S. union only under the premise that it was through with slavery and barbarism and was finally worthy of being a part of a civilized nation. The federal Readmission Act, to which Mississippi was supposed to be beholden, includes a demand that the state’s trashy white leaders agree to provide equitable education to Black residents. In fact, Mississippi’s state constitution originally included a fair education clause that guaranteed a “uniform system of free public schools” for all children, white or Black.
White state leaders began undermining their promise to Congress almost immediately after they got through the door. In 1890, Mississippi whites adopted a new constitution that restricted Black Americans’ voting rights and created racially-segregated schools—complete with an underhanded school funding mechanism that allowed wealthy, white school districts to levy taxes for education revenue far in excess of the taxes generated in poorer, largely Black districts.
Then-Mississippi House member James Vardaman described the vile, new constitution best when he said: “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics; not the ‘ignorant and vicious,’ as some of those apologists would have you believe, but the nigger. … Let the world know it just as it is.” (Vardaman wasn’t criticizing the prospect, by the way; he was a segregationist <let your creativity soar and insert your own derogatory term here> lauding and embracing it.)
From there, Mississippi reversed 30 years of whirlwind social evolution. It kicked out or murdered its Black politicians, locked Black voters out of the political process and became a terrorist state based on oppression, murder and torture. It continued being a terrorist state on into the modern world and only became somewhat civilized when the Supreme Court put its foot down almost a century later. The court was not the best gate warden, however. The Supreme Court rotates its judges like any other U.S. institution and some courts were more lamentable than others. The Burger Court, which ran between 1969 to 1986, allowed Mississippi to keep shortchanging Black education by tying school funding to local property and sales taxes. It was one of the Jim Crow leftovers from Mississippi’s disgusting 1890 convention that still sticks around, like its felony disenfranchisement restrictions.
Money and local tax revenue usually decide the success of the district’s students, particularly in Mississippi. The SPLC points out that all of the state’s F-rated school districts are majority Black and “conversely, the vast majority of A-rated schools are at least 70 percent white.” How much money your district makes on the local level through property taxes determines how some public-school students in wealthy Madison County can take home school computers and why some Jackson Public School students don’t even get to take home textbooks. (As recently as a few years ago, some students had to leave their math book at school and instead took home math worksheets.)
This is a widely recognized issue. In Texas, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez sought to fix the garbage system by arguing the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment demands fair funding among school districts regardless of the local tax base. That Burger court we just talked about, however, rejected that claim in 1973, arguing that the Constitution doesn’t care if you grow up ignorant because of your district’s wealth or lack of it. And so, Black students continue to take worksheets home and the Mississippi Department of Education reports a 29 percent achievement gap between Black and white students.
When it sued Mississippi in 2017, the SPLC pointed out it wasn’t just math books that were missing from some students’ homework. They’re also missing “literature, basic supplies, experienced teachers, sports and other extracurricular activities, tutoring programs and even toilet paper.” So the organization launched a suit on behalf of four Black mothers whose children attended kindergarten and first grade in the Jackson Public School District and the low-revenue Yazoo City Municipal School District.
“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 SPLC attorney Will Bardwell at the time. “The state’s education system is shamefully inequitable and anything but uniform.”
Judge Barbour tried to toss the suit last year, claiming the state couldn’t be sued because of sovereign immunity, but when the three-judge appellate panel reversed his decision earlier this month, they argued that the “allegations are sufficiently forward-looking, and thus permissible.” Christine Bischoff, senior staff attorney for the SPLC, called the reversal “welcome news for families impacted by Mississippi’s violation of the Readmission Act and establishment of a shockingly disuniform public school system that greatly disadvantages African American students.”
“All children deserve equal access to high-quality, well-resourced public schools, regardless of a child’s race or the race of her classmates,” Bischoff added. “For far too long, Mississippi has flaunted federal law by subjecting African American children to an education inferior to the education received by white students in the state.”
The fact that the case can move forward is not a victory yet. State leaders have cherished their time-honored practice of putting Black students in hot shacks without textbooks and they’ve fashioned a court system that further enshrines that brand of societal neglect. How this conservative court will decide this case will likely be the biggest hurdle for fair education in Mississippi and a clear indicator of how far the state has or has not come since the days of forcing Black voters to guess the number of bubbles in a bar of soap. Stay tuned.