The legal battle began after the legislature passed a $10 million appropriation in 2022 which would provide funds toward infrastructure improvements at private schools across the state.
Facilitated through a grant program and funded in part by federal COVID-19 relief money under the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, those schools could be granted funds up to $100,000 each for improvements to water, drainage or internet broadband expansion.
But the appropriation was blocked later that year by Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Crystal Wise Martin, who argued in her ruling that the money would give private schools a competitive advantage over their public counterparts.
Opponents of the program say it’s in violation of section 208 of the state constitution, which delineates how taxpayer funds can be spent on education. Sponsors of the bill and supporters of the plan are asking the court to create exceptions within the constitution to allow the funding to be released.
Will Bardwell, an attorney with Democracy Forward representing the plaintiff in the suit, Parents for Public Schools, says he worries creating those exceptions will lead to establishing a dangerous precedent.
“This is a case about a lot more than $10 million. This is a case about part of Mississippi’s constitution that reserves all the state’s education funding for public schools,” he said.
“If we’re going to make exceptions for that, then we can make exceptions for a $100 million appropriation or a $500 million appropriation.”
Attorneys representing the state say PPS doesn’t have standing in their challenge over the program because there’s a difference between Mississippi taxpayer funds being appropriated to the program – which they admitted would be in violation of section 208 – and federal taxpayer funds being appropriated, which should be allowed and is not in violation.
“PPS asks this court to block that federal disaster relief, but an advocacy organization can’t challenge spending decisions with speculative effects and generalized taxpayer objections,” said Justin Matheny, deputy solicitor general in the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office.
“All they’ve shown is a bare policy disagreement with the grant program, and that doesn’t come close to proving standing under this court’s precedence.”
Becky Glover, a policy analyst at Parents for Public Schools, says public schools in the state are already in need of funding for infrastructure improvements themselves.
“Our state legislature has chosen 25 out of the past 27 years to not follow their own law about how they’re supposed to fund public schools in Mississippi. And they’ve chosen to underfund them for things that include infrastructure, but also the very basics you have to have just to be considered a school.”
The full 9 Judge court is expected to rule on the case in the coming months.