The Legislature passed the $10 million program in the 2022 session. It takes effect July 1st.
A law passed by the Mississippi Legislature in 2022 regarding grant funding for independent schools is being challenged in court after a lawsuit was filed saying it violates the state’s constitution.
The Legislation would allow up to $100,000 in grant funding to be awarded to independent schools in Mississippi, which consist of private schools, for infrastructure needs.
*A correction was made after clarification that charter schools are considered public, not private, according to Mississippi Code 37-28-3*
The suit was filed in Hinds County Chancery Court by the Parents for Public Schools, Inc. (PPS) who is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi in partnership with the Mississippi Center for Justice and Democracy Forward.
“PPS unequivocally opposes taxpayer dollars being used to support non-public schools,” said Becky Glover, policy analyst at PPS. “Our taxes provide a way for us to build and maintain what we, as a society, agree we all need and want, but can’t afford on our own. So, in addition to the unconstitutionality of this matter is the fact that taxpayers are the primary source of revenue for public infrastructure, as well as public goods and services. Taxes are supposed to serve and support the common good. Private schools are not public.”
SB 2780 creates the Independent Schools Infrastructure Grant Program Act of 2022 (Section 12). Under this program eligible independent schools, or non-public sector schools, can apply for reimbursable grants that go toward water, sewer, broadband and other infrastructure needs. The grants would be funded by dollars from the American Rescue Plan (ARPA) using the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Funds.
Mississippi received $1.8 billion in federal pandemic funds.
The grants could be applied for by the governing board of the eligible independent schools and could be awarded money if they are to be used in compliance with ARPA funds. The applications would go through the state’s Department of Finance and Administration, who will ultimately certify what projects are acceptable.
The funds must be obligated and the projects completed in compliance with ARPA rules. The maximum amount of grant funds that each school could receive is $100,000.
Another associated appropriations bill, SB 3064, would allow for up to $10,000,000 in grant funding to be available. These appropriations are subject to review by the State Auditor’s office as well as the Joint Legislative Budget office.
“The issue here is that the Mississippi Constitution explicitly forbids lawmakers from appropriating public funds to any private school,” said Joshua Tom, legal director ACLU of Mississippi. “Furthermore, public funds must have a system of accountability, and private schools that are receiving taxpayer dollars have no accountability to the taxpayer for the expenditure of these public funds.”
The lawsuit, which can be read here, says that “infrastructure upgrades, like those challenged here, make private schools more competitive. And when students leave their public school, the public school’s state funding diminishes. This competitive imbalance is further exacerbated by the public schools’ ineligibility to apply for grants through the challenged legislation.”
Members debated the legislation in the Senate on April 5th. State Senator John Polk, who was in favor of the bill, said that private and independent K-12 schools also suffered during COVID, and that the Legislature should be able to help improve their conditions.
Polk also made note that lawmakers appropriated the same amount of money for these independent schools out of the CARES Act two years ago.
“We passed it, it was unique times, so the precedent has been set to do this,” said Polk.
While both bills did pass, there was dissent. The program creation bill passed 50-0 in the Senate and 116-3 in the House, while the appropriation bill passed 30-17 in the Senate and 90-13 in the House.
Ultimately, the suit requests that the grant program be blocked and allow for the funds per school be made available to any in-state school that is a member of the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools that are accredited by a state, regional or national organization.
“Public education is a bedrock of our democracy, which is why Section 208 of the Constitution is clear and unambiguous: spending public money on private schools is never allowed,” said Will Bardwell, senior counsel at Democracy Forward. “Thus, the Legislature has done precisely what the Mississippi Constitution forbids. We look forward to urging the courts to end this obviously unconstitutional conduct.”
The lawsuit names the state Department of Finance and Administration along with State Treasurer David McRae and DFA Director Liz Welch in their official capacities.