There is no disputing that the quality of public education received by Mississippi students in poor, predominantly black school districts is not as good as that received by their counterparts in prosperous, predominantly white ones.

Tim Kalich 2016

Kalich

Although there may be isolated exceptions, the facilities are not as good in the poorer, blacker districts, not as many of the teachers are qualified, and the outcomes are not as good, as measured by state assessments and their graduates’ future success in college or the workplace.

In the days of state-sanctioned segregation, these disparities were by intent. The whites in power wanted to keep the descendants of former slaves subjugated, so as to provide an ample pool of the low-wage, manual labor on which Mississippi’s agriculture-based economy depended. The way to keep people poor and in place was to keep them uneducated.

During the Jim Crow era, the Legislature starved black schools. Jerry Mitchell, a veteran investigative reporter who has written extensively on past racial injustices in Mississippi, has documented the funding disparities.

In 1890, the year in which Mississippi adopted its racially discriminatory post-Reconstruction constitution, the state spent twice as much on white students as on black students. By 1935, the disparity had grown to more than 3-to-1. In today’s dollars, according to Mitchell’s calculation, between 1890 and 1960, Mississippi spent more than $25 billion less on black students than it did on white students.

In the 60 years since, however, the explanation for why poor, black schools continue to have such low educational attainment is not as simple. That’s why an education discrimination lawsuit, revived this past week by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is unlikely to provide an effective solution even if the plaintiffs prevail.

The lawsuit, originally filed in 2017, claims that Mississippi is illegally providing an inferior education to black children, especially those from low-income households.

The Court of Appeals said that while the plaintiffs, four black mothers, could not sue the state for compensation for past practices, they could sue to seek changes going forward.

What would those changes be? Of course, more funding. For years, public school advocates have been unsuccessfully trying to force the Legislature to live up to its 1987 promise to follow a formula designed to eliminate funding disparities between school districts with a strong local tax base and those without one.

Only twice since the formula’s creation has the Legislature funded it completely. A constitutional referendum in 2015 to compel full funding annually was rejected by voters. A lawsuit orchestrated by Ronnie Musgrove, a primary author of the 1987 funding formula and former governor, was rejected in 2017 by the state  Supreme Court.

Failure to follow the state’s school funding formula may be a problem, but the data would not indicate that factor explains the quality disparity between predominantly black and predominantly white schools.

In the federal lawsuit, the mothers compare the substandard schools their children attended at the time in Jackson and Yazoo City with successful schools in three of the state’s more prosperous areas — Madison County, DeSoto County and Gulfport.

Per-pupil spending between the two groups is actually not much different, however. According to the latest state data, Madison County spends $9,458 per student, Gulfport $8,706 and DeSoto County $7,330. All three have the state’s top academic rating of A. Meanwhile, Jackson, a D-rated district, spends $9,422 and Yazoo City, which is rated F, spends $7,859.

The plaintiffs may claim that the state, in order to remedy the harm done to black education from slavery until desegregation, has to spend more on black schools to help them catch up. That’s a reasonable argument, but it overlooks other issues money won’t fix.

Schools in high-poverty areas have trouble finding and keeping talented administrators and teachers not because of pay but because of how challenging they are to work in. The families in these schools often have multigenerational patterns of academic difficulty. Their children, because they aren’t read to or spoken to enough in the first critical years of brain development, are behind even before they start kindergarten.

If the plaintiffs want to end the education disparities, they must attack those handicaps, too.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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