Federal ARPA funds were appropriated for a grant program by Mississippi lawmakers that allowed private schools to seek a portion of $10 million.
Last year, the Mississippi Legislature created a grant program for private schools during the 2022 legislative session using ARPA funds. Lawmakers allocated $10 million to the program.
In June 2022, Parents for Public Schools, Inc. (PPS), represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi, Mississippi Center for Justice, and Democracy Forward, filed a lawsuit to stop Mississippi state officials from using public money to fund private schools.
The lawsuit specifically challenged Senate Bill 2780 and Senate Bill 3064. The ACLU of Mississippi argued that because the funding program is only open to private schools, it violates Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution, which makes clear that public money cannot be used to fund private schools.
Joshua Tom, Legal Director at ACLU of Mississippi, said the issue is that the Mississippi Constitution explicitly forbids lawmakers from appropriating public funds to any private school.
“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,” Tom continued.
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In October 2022, a Hinds County judge ruled that the $10 million allocation did violate Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution.
Last week, the Mississippi Attorney General’s office filed an appeal. The AG argued that the state constitution was not violated because the money came from federal funds. An excerpt of the brief states:
For every ARPA dollar allotted to public schools, independent schools are slated to receive less than 1/160th of an ARPA dollar (around 6 tenths of one cent) from SB 2870 grants….Under SB 2780, no single independent school can be awarded more than $100,000 in ARPA grants. By comparison, individual public schools will collect nearly thirty times that much ARPA money.
Additionally, the Institute for Justice (IJ) submitted an amicus brief in the case before the Mississippi Supreme Court. In the brief, IJ asked the Court to preserve the legislature’s discretion to establish educational choice programs that provide support to Mississippi school children.
IJ’s brief does not take a position on whether the lower court’s ruling was correct, but asks the Mississippi Supreme Court to make clear that regardless of whether the Legislature can provide institutional aid to nonpublic schools, it can provide individual aid to students attending nonpublic schools.
“State courts around the country, including the Mississippi Supreme Court, have long recognized that the beneficiaries of student aid programs are students, not schools,” said IJ Educational Choice Attorney David Hodges. “The Court should reaffirm that the Mississippi Constitution permits the legislature to provide aid for students whose parents exercise their fundamental constitutional right to choose a private education for their children.”