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Mississippi Learning? Not If The Southern Poverty Law Center Has Its Way

We have an old saying down here in Louisiana: Thank God for Mississippi. It’s a cynical expression alluding to the fact that no matter how poorly Louisiana fares in national rankings of social and economic health, things for our neighbors in the Magnolia State are almost inevitably worse.

That’s especially true when it comes to indicators for children. Just last month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked Mississippi dead last in its 2016 Kids Count Data Book, an annual assessment of state trends in child well-being (for what it’s worth, Louisiana ranked an embarrassing 48th).

Graphic from the 2016 Kids Count Data Book.
Graphic from the 2016 Kids Count Data Book.

In terms of education, the study paints a gloomy picture: In 2015, only 26% of Mississippi’s fourth graders were proficient in reading and only 22% of eighth graders were proficient in math. Moreover, nearly a third of Mississippi high schoolers failed to graduate on time.

Statistics for the state’s African-American students are even more egregious. A recent report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce revealed that only 3% of black high school graduates in Mississippi earned a college-ready ACT score in 2015 and only 1.2% of black graduates scored a “3” or higher on an AP exam in 2014.

In an effort to help reverse these dismal educational outcomes, state lawmakers passed legislation in 2013 that paved the way for the state’s first charter schools by establishing a statewide Charter School Authorizer Board and setting a high bar for applicants. Since that time, two charters have launched in Jackson – ReImagine Prep and Midtown Public – and the authorizer board is reviewing proposals for four additional schools (including one from the New Orleans-based organization, Collegiate Academies) that would open within the next two years.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant visits a classroom at Reimagine Prep, one of two charters operating in the state.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant visits a classroom at Reimagine Prep, one of two charters operating in the state.

However, a lawsuit filed earlier this month by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) could derail those plans and shutter the two charters already serving students. The suit, which SPLC filed on behalf of seven Jackson Public School District parents, claims that Mississippi’s charter school law violates the state constitution. As Mississippi Today explained:

“The ultimate goal of the lawsuit is for the courts to declare the funding mechanism of charters unconstitutional, similar to what happened when the Washington Supreme Court ruled its state’s charter school law unconstitutional based on its funding streams.”

If successful, SPLC’s lawsuit could prevent thousands of children in Mississippi – particularly low-income students of color – from obtaining the quality public education they have long been denied.

SPLC’s Hidden Anti-Charter Agenda

Some may find it strange that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which gained prominence in the 1980s for its legal battles against white supremacist groups, is leading a fight against Mississippi’s charter schools. But over time, SPLC has strayed from its original mission – fighting hate groups and protecting civil rights – to embrace other causes, including opposition to education reform. In the past few years, SPLC has filed several lawsuits against school districts and charter management organizations that appeared to be motivated by an ideological agenda rather than the desire to redress legitimate legal claims.

SPLC's headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama.
SPLC’s headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama.

Indeed, SPLC’s current legal challenge in Mississippi seems to be part of an intentional anti-charter strategy. An education reform advocate in Jackson recently told me that the organization devised a legal plan to challenge the state’s charter school law before seeking out public school parents to serve as plaintiffs:

“It’s for sure coming out of SPLC’s HQ in Montgomery…I would argue it’s not very local because they struggled for months to find parents as plaintiffs. Three [plaintiffs] are affiliated with Kellogg and Parents for Public Schools, a.k.a. notorious anti-charter organizations in Mississippi.”

Needless to say, the plaintiffs SPLC recruited for their lawsuit are not low-income parents whose children would benefit most from charter schools. Lead plaintiff Charles Araujo is a social worker and faculty member at Jackson State University. Another plaintiff, John Sewell, is Director of Communications and Marketing at Millsaps College and served on the board of Parents for Public Schools Mississippi, a noted anti-charter group. Cassandra Welchlin, who mounted an unsuccessful bid for State Senate in 2013, also joined the suit. In short, a small group of privileged individuals are trying to block Mississippi’s poor children from attending high-quality public schools, which as history shows, is something of a long-standing tradition in the state.

For their part, SPLC officials insist they have nothing against charter schools and are not seeking to shut them down. Will Bardwell, the attorney overseeing SPLC’s case, told the Clarion-Ledger :

“We don’t want the charter schools act struck down. This lawsuit is about the constitution. If the Legislature can find a way to comply with the constitution and keep them open, we would applaud them.”

Jody Owens, managing attorney for SPLC’s Mississippi office, reiterated that message, telling the paper, “We want to remedy this in a way that is least destructive for students that are in charters.”

When Will Bardwell isn't trying to deny educational options from poor kids, he's harassing Scottish greenskeepers.
When Will Bardwell isn’t trying to deny poor kids educational options, he bothers Scottish greenskeepers.

Intermission: Otis Spann’s “Home To Mississippi”

SPLC’s Pattern of Anti-Charter Behavior

Yet in spite of their assurances, there is reason to believe that the ultimate aim of the Southern Poverty Law Center is to bring Mississippi’s nascent charter school experiment to an end. A look at SPLC’s aggressive effort to disrupt and discredit charter schools in New Orleans provides evidence of its clear anti-charter bias.

Back in the fall of 2013, a series of student protests broke out at a trio of schools managed by Collegiate Academies, an acclaimed charter network in New Orleans known for its success in getting students to college (and, as noted above, one of the organizations currently seeking a charter in Mississippi). It was soon discovered that a small group of activists – including a woman who posed as a freelance journalist to gain access to the school – were inciting the walkouts. They also urged parents to withdraw their children en masse from Collegiate’s schools during the second week of December. Fortunately, when the day came for the mass exodus, only two parents actually withdrew their children from school and the disruptions ended as suddenly as they began.

The planned exodus from Collegiate Academies was a huge flop.
The planned exodus from Collegiate Academies was a huge flop.

Throughout the debacle, there were indications that SPLC was playing a behind-the-scenes role in the protests. They issued public statements in support of the walkouts, including an open letter SPLC sent to Collegiate Academies’ board of directors. I also published a blog post at the time showing that a protest letter purportedly from students was actually written by Eden Heilman, the head of SPLC’s New Orleans office.

Shortly thereafter, a reader sent me internal SPLC emails revealing that the organization was deeply involved in planning and organizing the protests. I never published the information because things at Collegiate Academies died down, but now that SPLC is trying to undermine Mississippi’s charter law, they can help shed light on the organization’s anti-charter agenda.

From an email circulated among SPLC's New Orleans staff on November 23, 2013.
From an email circulated among SPLC’s New Orleans staff on November 23, 2013.

Of the documents I received, the most damning is an email circulated among SPLC’s New Orleans staff on November 23, 2013. Attached to the email were photos from a radio interview at WBOK-AM in which students involved in the protests trashed Collegiate Academies.

Photo from the radio interview at WBOK-AM.
Photo from the radio interview at WBOK-AM.

The email also included photos from a strategy meeting held the same day at SPLC’s offices with students leading the walkouts at Collegiate Academies. The pictures show SPLC staff members – including managing attorney Eden Heilman – conferring with students over the course of the day.

Eden Heilman, managing attorney of SPLC's New Orleans office, at the protest strategy meeting.
Eden Heilman (seated), managing attorney of SPLC’s New Orleans office, at the protest strategy meeting.

They also capture two whiteboards with notes from the meeting. One provides an overview of the agenda, which lists as their targets: Collegiate Academies, the Recovery School District, and the principals at two of Collegiate Academies’ schools.

The "targets" listed on the agenda from SPLC's Nov. 2013 meeting include Collegiate Academies, RSD, and two principals.
The “targets” listed on the agenda from SPLC’s Nov. 2013 meeting include Collegiate Academies, RSD, and two principals.

The other whiteboard outlines their tactics for disrupting Collegiate’s three schools, one of which is “a public shame campaign” through social media. Other tactics include a plan to “mob” staff meetings and circulate petitions and flyers in student binders.

Among the tactics devised to attack Collegiate Academies was a "public shame campaign," a plan to disrupt staff meetings, and put flyers in student binders.
Among the tactics devised to attack Collegiate Academies: a “public shame campaign,” staff meeting disruptions, and flyers in student binders.

The photos make clear that SPLC was not a disinterested party simply working to protect the rights of students. On the contrary, SPLC was pro-actively trying to create chaos at an acclaimed charter school network in order to discredit the Recovery School District’s reform efforts in New Orleans. In light of this fact, I wouldn’t trust SPLC officials in Mississippi when they claim, “We don’t want the charter schools act struck down.”

Why is @splcenter trying to shut down #charters in #Mississippi? Click to Tweet

Read SPLC’s Lawsuit in Mississippi:

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.


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