JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi judge is scheduled to hear arguments Tuesday in a lawsuit that says the state is violating its own constitution by directing $10 million in pandemic relief money to private schools.
In April, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed two bills. One created a grant program to help private schools pay for water, broadband and other infrastructure projects. The other allocated the $10 million of federal money for the program, starting July 1.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, the Mississippi Center for Justice and Democracy Forward filed the lawsuit June 15 in Hinds County Chancery Court on behalf of Parents for Public Schools, an advocacy group founded more than 30 years ago.
The lawsuit asks a judge to block the program, which allows grants of up to $100,000 to any in-state school that is a member of the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools and that is accredited by a state, regional or national organization. The parameters of the program exclude public schools from applying for the infrastructure grants.
The lawsuit cites Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution, which prohibits the use of public money for any school that is not “a free school.”
Private schools “can operate only so long as students pay tuition,” but public schools have an obligation to serve every child, the lawsuit says. It says infrastructure improvements make private schools more competitive.
In arguments filed Aug. 4, attorneys for the state responded that the federal funds “were never earmarked for public schools in the first place,” so public schools “stand to lose exactly nothing” as a result of the grant program.
Hinds County Chancery Judge Crystal Wise Martin is hearing the case.
During this year’s legislative session, Mississippi’s Republican-controlled House and Senate made plans to spend most of the $1.8 billion the state is receiving from the federal government for pandemic relief.
Legislators this year also 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 do not need to be repaid.