Can public money go to private schools? Mississippi Supreme Court hears arguments

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi is violating its own constitution with a law that would put public money into infrastructure grants for private schools, attorneys for a public education advocacy group argued Tuesday to the state Supreme Court.

But one attorney representing the state and one representing private schools argued that public schools were not harmed by the $10 million program that the Republican-controlled Legislature voted to create in 2022.

The grants have been put on hold during the yearslong court fight. They were to be funded with part of the money that Mississippi received from the federal government for COVID-19 pandemic relief, and private schools could receive up to $100,000 each for broadband, water or drainage projects.

“This does not involve state education funding,” Justin Matheny, deputy solicitor general in the Mississippi attorney general’s office, told a panel of three justices.

Rob McDuff, one of the attorneys representing the nonprofit group Parents for Public Schools, said the Mississippi Constitution specifies that public money should go only to public schools.

“This is an ironclad principle,” McDuff said Tuesday. “It doesn’t have exceptions.”

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

In 2022, Mississippi legislators 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.

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.

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.

“At the end of the day, what it boils down to is pure speculation that building a ditch at a private school is somehow going to set off some chain reaction of effects that would result in parents deciding to leave public schools, public schools receiving less money, and so on and so forth,” Matheny said in court Tuesday.

Two of the justices who heard arguments Tuesday, Leslie King and Robert Chamberlin, are former legislators. The other justice, David Ishee, is the son of a former legislator. King, the presiding justice, did not indicate when the Supreme Court might issue a ruling.

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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