Eaton: Disappointingly, Attorney General Fitch fails to address socioeconomic challenge of uniform education in MS


LibandJustice, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch seeks to dismiss a recent lawsuit that ensures Mississippi follows its 1868 Constitution, which promotes a uniform system of education for students.

By Elena Eaton, The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch intends to file a “writ of certiorari” to ask the Supreme Court to review a lower court’s record of the recent court case against Mississippi’s current constitution. Attorney General Fitch’s main goal is to have the case thrown out. The constitution, amended from its adoption in 1890, is being scrutinized by the Social and Labor Convergence Program (SLCP), who allege that the language in Article 8, the section addressing state education, does not encourage or mandate a uniform system of education. The main point of contention is the continuation of racial inequality from Reconstruction-era MS.

The 1868 Constitution of Mississippi stated, “As the stability of a republican form of government depends mainly upon the intelligence and virtue of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature to encourage, by all suitable means, the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral, and agricultural improvement, by establishing a uniform system of free public schools, by taxation or otherwise…” 

Later, the wording of Mississippi’s state Constitution changed to reflect, and uphold, segregation in the south.  Article 8 Section 202 of the 1890 Constitution of Mississippi reads, “It shall be the duty of the legislature to encourage by all suitable means, the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral and agricultural improvement, by establishing a uniform system of free public schools, by taxation, or otherwise, for all children between the ages of five and 21 years, and, as soon as practicable, to establish schools of higher grade” closely followed by Section 207, “Separate schools shall be maintained for children of the white and colored races.”

Currently, Mississippi adheres to a thoroughly amended version of the 1892 Constitution. This present Constitution stipulates, “The Legislature shall, by general law, provide for the establishment, maintenance and support of free public schools upon such conditions and limitations as the Legislature may prescribe.” As evidenced by the varied phrasing of these Constitutions, education in Mississippi went from being free and uniform, to free, uniform and segregated, to simply free. 

Clearly, the standard of education required in Mississippi has regressed, but the quality of education is not the sole source of public dissatisfaction with MS Attorney General Fitch’s attempt to throw out this reformatory court case.

Many view the evolution of Mississippi’s educational standards, as they are outlined in the state constitution, as direct evidence of the post-reconstruction survival of Jim Crow laws in the south. To some, Republican Attorney General Fitch is trying to sweep this issue under the rug to avoid acknowledging that racially prejudiced attitudes persist in the south– or to avoid reforming them. Hence, the lawsuit against the Constitution of Mississippi’s claimed-to-be-inequitable education system and Attorney General Fitch’s attempted dismissal has become a matter of racial justice– but that’s not entirely accurate.

While it’s undeniable that racial segregation and prejudice in the 19th century were responsible for the changes in the wording of the MS state constitution, the controversy surrounding this case is addressing the wrong factor. This is no longer strictly a racial issue, it’s also a socioeconomic one. 

Educational funding is a combination of federal, state, and local dollars. Federal funding makes up a meager 10% of educational funding and is typically given to low-income students or other distinctly disadvantaged groups. On the other hand, the majority of local funding is derived from property taxes and state funding varies from state to state.  

Mississippi uses a formula called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MEAP) to address disparities in the quality of education brought on by differing circumstances of local economies. Passed as law in 1994, the MEAP addresses the issue of better-supported schools in wealthier school districts by providing need-based funding and stipulating a cap on local district contributions. Yet, inequities of educational opportunity persist.

It is a widely recognized fact that areas with more robust tax bases are better able to support schools within their districts.  In their case against Mississippi’s constitution, the SLCP cited several examples where African American students received an “inferior” education in MS.  According to Bobby Harrison with Mississippi Today, “in the 2015-16 school year, of the 19 F rate school districts, 13 had a Black enrollment of more than 95% and all had enrollment of African Americans of at least 85%.”  

Though this may lend to the idea that educational inequalities are remnants of Jim Crow Laws in the South, it is imperative to remember that, though the majority, Black students are not the only individuals with an education suffering from funding inequities.  All races of students in these under-funded schools are at this disadvantage.  Local contributions are responsible for the difference in funding, a factor that can only be definitively tied to socioeconomic status (within the scope of this lawsuit).

Understanding that the real root of the educational disparity in Mississippi is a socioeconomic issue makes clear why Attorney General Fitch is trying to dismiss the case: it’s problematic. Firstly, there is no equitable solution to this difference in funding that is equal.  

The money has to come from somewhere. Whether this means raising taxes in higher-income neighborhoods to cover costs of lower-income school districts or redistributing federal funds to lower-income school districts from higher-income schools, there is no solution that will guarantee an equal amount of local and federal funding to every school. But, a solution is necessary. An equitable solution ensuring equal total funding must be reached in order to uphold the Readmission Act of 1866 and provide state-wide uniform education.

Put simply, this lawsuit addresses a socioeconomic issue, Attorney General Fitch’s dismissal of this court case is understandable but not acceptable, and, most importantly, Mississippi’s distribution of education funding must be reformed to ensure equitable funding and uphold federal obligations to the Readmission Act of 1866. If any degree of educational uniformity is to be achieved in Mississippi, change will have to come from someone; it’s just disappointing that Attorney General Fitch is not stepping up to this challenge.

This story was originally published on The Vision MSMS on January 13, 2021.