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Southern Poverty Law Center sues on behalf of black families

Group says state violates post-Civil War agreement on schools

CNN  — 

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of four black families alleging that the state of Mississippi has failed to live up to a Reconstruction-era agreement to provide “a uniform system of free schools” for all children.

The SPLC claims that its clients’ school systems lack textbooks, experienced teachers, basic supplies and “even toilet paper.” The group says the schools are far from uniform, which violates the 1869 Readmissions Act, which Mississippi agreed to in order to rejoin the Union.

SPLC’s claim points at disparities between predominantly white and black public schools in Mississippi.

“Black students still do not receive an education equal to that received by white students,” according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The schools where the four plaintiffs’ children attend lack textbooks, basic supplies, extracurricular activities and even toilet paper, according to the lawsuit. The schools are attended by mostly African-American children. They are part of the Jackson Public School District and the Yazoo City Municipal School District, which have been rated an “F” by the state’s department of education, according to the lawsuit.

One of the plaintiffs, Precious Hughes described her six-year-old daughter’s school as “old, dark and gloomy – like a jail.” She said teacher absenteeism is frequent and there aren’t enough textbooks for everyone. Twice a year, she’s asked to bring soap and paper towel for the school, according to the lawsuit.

Academically, 10% of the students at her daughter’s school are proficient in reading and 4% in math.

Hughes wants her child to go to a better school, but can’t move into a better district.

“I can’t afford to move my family to one of the school districts,” she said in a press conference Tuesday, covered by CNN affiliate WLBT. “I know I’m not the only mother who feels this way.”

Other parents in the suit described overcrowded classrooms, lack of supplies, bathroom stalls that don’t close and rotten food in the cafeteria.

“The state’s education system is shamefully inequitable and anything but uniform,” said Will Bardwell, senior staff attorney in the SPLC’s Jackson office in a statement.

The lawsuit names the state’s governor, lieutenant governor and other Mississippi officials as the defendants.

WLBT got a statement from Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant calling the lawsuit an “attempt by the Southern Poverty Law Center to fundraiser on the backs of Mississippi taxpayers.”

“While the SPLC clings to its misguided and cynical views, we will continue to shape Mississippi’s system of public education into the best and most innovative in America.”

The state ranks near the bottom on academic performance measures.

Lt. Governor Tate Reeves also blasted the group’s lawsuit in a statement.

“The irony of a fringe organization that is already suing the state to protect the status quo in opposition to providing school choices to minority students while now simultaneously suing the state based on the fact those same failing districts aren’t adequately educating those same minority students is almost laughable. They obviously have more lawyers than they have ‘causes’.”