Mississippi Schools Sue State For More Money : NPR Ed Mississippi has long ranked near the bottom of the states in educational performance. In a bid to change that, 21 school districts are suing the state for more than $200 million in education funding.
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Mississippi Schools Sue State For More Money

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Mississippi Schools Sue State For More Money

Mississippi Schools Sue State For More Money

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's go now to Mississippi, which has troubles of its own. Forbes Magazine recently ranked the state as the worst place in the country to do business - one reason? - the state's poor education system. Mississippi regularly ranks at or near the bottom in measures like student outcome and per-pupil spending, which has led school districts there to try to remedy that by suing the state. Jeffrey Hess of Mississippi Public Broadcasting reports.

JEFFREY HESS, BYLINE: The 5-year-olds in Taneka Hawkins' kindergarten class get their wiggles out with a midmorning dance break. The 20 kids are waving their arms and jumping around to a guided dance video.

TANEKA HAWKINS: The children are so small, and a lot of things that we do have to be so hands-on. And it's kind of hard when it's more than 20.

HESS: Hawkins teaches at this elementary school in Hattiesburg. The school is in a district that is teaming up with 20 others in suing the state for more funding. If successful, this district would be in line for a $12 million boost. That's equivalent to nearly a third of its current yearly budget and could allow the district to do things like hire more teachers and decrease class sizes. Again, Taneka Hawkins.

HAWKINS: It's kind of manageable because we have two teachers. But 15 would be ideal. And I think we could reach more students with that smaller class size.

HESS: The schools have a high-powered advocate. Mississippi's former governor, Ronnie Musgrove, is leading the lawsuit.

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RONNIE MUSGROVE: Our objective is to get as much money as possible back for every school district. We want to once again make education a priority in Mississippi.

HESS: Mississippi is unusual in that it's one of few states that hasn't seen a lawsuit over education spending. Starting in the mid-'90s, school districts around the country began suing their state lawmakers over how the state allocated education dollars. Mississippi's a latecomer. But in addition to more money going forward, the schools here are demanding past funding they believe they're owed.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: David, now.

HESS: At Woodley Elementary School, students line up in the cafeteria.

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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Screaming).

HESS: Here, 93 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. School Principal Felicia Morris says her budget is stretched so thin, she's turned to churches for extra staff. She cannot make needed repairs to the nearly 60-year-old building or purchase books needed to teach the new Common Core standards.

FELICIA MORRIS: So we're having to pull other resources to maybe get, like, half of the books. Where, if we had more money, we could get it all and then be able to fund the other projects that we have - not to mention class sizes, maybe possible having more tutors.

HESS: But the schools are up against the state's Republican legislative leadership, including the powerful Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves, who mistrusts the Democrat leading the suit.

LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR TATE REEVES: I think that the lawsuit gives former Governor Musgrove the opportunity to make hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees. And I'm not sure that's in the best interest of Mississippi schoolchildren.

HESS: Conservatives also don't like the idea of courts becoming the arbiter of an education spending budget, which while it might be one of the smallest in the country, still takes up nearly half the state's annual revenue. Molly Hunter is with the Education Law Center. She says the lawsuit can help, but more money doesn't guarantee better education.

MOLLY HUNTER: I don't know of anyone who says just throw money at it. I think that the money has to be spent in an effective way.

HESS: A ruling could come by the end of the year. If the judge rules in favor of the schools, it could mean lawmakers may have to find hundreds of millions of dollars in new education spending immediately, although, they would likely appeal. For NPR News, I'm Jeffrey Hess in Jackson, Mississippi.

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