Mississippi’s top court to hear arguments over spending public money on private schools

JACKSON, Miss. — The Mississippi Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Tuesday in a dispute over a state law that would put $10 million of federal pandemic relief money into infrastructure grants for private schools.

Hinds County Chancery Judge Crystal Wise Martin blocked the law in October 2022 after Parents for Public Schools sued the state. The nonprofit group argued the grants would give private schools a competitive advantage over public schools.

“Any appropriation of public funds to be received by private schools adversely affects schools and their students,” Martin wrote. “Taxpayer funding for education is finite.”

The lawsuit cited a section of the Mississippi Constitution that prohibits the use of public money for any school that is not “a free school.”

During the 2022 legislative session, Mississippi’s Republican-controlled House and Senate made plans to spend most of the $1.8 billion that the state received for pandemic relief.

One bill signed by Republican Gov. Tate Reeves created a grant program to help private schools pay for water, broadband and other infrastructure projects. Another allocated the $10 million of federal money for the program as of July 1, 2022.

The program allowed grants of up to $100,000 to any in-state school that is a member of the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools and is accredited by a state, regional or national organization.

Public schools could not apply for the infrastructure grants. Legislators created a program to provide interest-free loans to public schools to improve buildings and other facilities, with money coming from the state. Those loans must be repaid within 10 years. The grants to private schools would not need to be repaid.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, the Mississippi Center for Justice and Democracy Forward filed the lawsuit in June 2022 on behalf of Parents for Public Schools, an advocacy group founded more than 30 years ago.

“The fact that the private school funding at issue here originated with federal funds makes no difference,” attorneys representing Parents of Public Schools wrote in papers filed with the state Supreme Court. “These particular federal funds became part of the state treasury, and the Legislature chose to spend them to help schools — and, more specifically, private schools.”

The private schools’ infrastructure grant program was to be overseen by the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration.

Representing DFA, the state attorney general’s office wrote in a filing to the Supreme Court that public school students “have benefited massively — and, compared to private school students, lopsidedly” from federal pandemic relief money.

State attorneys also wrote that the Mississippi Constitution only blocks the Legislature from sending money directly to private schools.

“It does not bar the Legislature from appropriating funds to an agency with directions to support non-free schools,” the state attorneys wrote.

The chancery judge, Martin, wrote in her ruling that Mississippi’s public education system has been “chronically underfunded.” A 1997 state law established a formula called the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, intended to ensure schools receive enough money to meet midlevel academic standards. Legislators have fully funded the formula only two years.

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