Funding for a state program that helped some private and special schools to buy textbooks has been sliced by 40 percent this year.
Some $200,000 is being cut from the program that has provided between $500,000 and $600,000 per year for the past five years to the group of nonpublic schools accredited by the Mississippi Department of Education.
The loss of funds is impacting about 60 private schools and schools operated by public agencies other than the state Education Department.
The program, which originated with a state textbook lending program that began in 1940, allowed nonpublic schools accredited by the state to receive state money to spend on the purchase of textbooks. The state Education Department allocates the funds for the books and orders the books chosen by the schools.
Resurrection Catholic School in Pascagoula has participated in the program for “many, many years,” said Principal Noah Hamilton, along with the eight other schools in the Biloxi diocese.
The school usually receives anywhere from $25,000 to $35,000 per year worth of textbooks, he said. The funds are disbursed in the fall, so the school usually uses the prior year’s funds for the current year’s books.
This year, however, the school received a letter from the Mississippi Department of Education saying it would only be allocating roughly half of the funds to Resurrection Catholic due to budget cuts by the Legislature.
Hamilton said the loss of funds could put the school in a bind for next year.
“What it really does is it messes you up the next year because we carry funds from year to year,” Hamilton said. “So we were able to take our leftover funds (this year) and get what we would’ve normally purchased this year.”
Hamilton said parents and families have started a letter-writing campaign to their representatives asking them to address this issue in the 2018 legislative session. In the meantime, the school will be deciding how it will raise the funds itself.
Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, wrote in a Facebook post that he is looking into the issue.
“I and others have raised the importance of the program with MDE and it is working on restoring the funds to the program. My understanding is the total statewide amount is approx. $300K meaning there is a good chance this amount can be restored from somewhere,” Wiggins wrote.
However, Mississippi Department of Education officials did not seem as optimistic.
“We expect that EEF (Education Enhancement Funds) will be the only source of funding for textbooks in future years and will allocate funding based on what is appropriated,” Department spokeswoman Jean Cook explained.
EEF funds are a separate pot of money appropriated to schools for expenses such as facilities, debt service and classroom supplies and materials.
Accredited nonpublic schools will be receiving about $200,000 less, or a total of $396,647 this year after the cuts. Last year they received $596,184.
“The MDE budget was cut 22% (from last fiscal year to the current fiscal year), and general funds were not available within the budget to support this allocation during the current fiscal year,” Cook said.
Nonpublic schools include private and parochial schools, special purpose schools either privately owned and operated or governed by another state agency other than MDE, and tribal schools funded by the Bureau of Indian Education. These schools may choose to pursue accreditation from the state, which means they must meet the same standards required of public schools and submit certain reports each year.
However, nonpublic schools in the program do not participate in the accountability system, or receive a grade from the state each year based on test performance, graduation rate and other factors, or school performance models.
Regular public school districts purchase books with funds from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP.
Wiggins continued in his Facebook post to say that if the funds were not restored, he would “work to do so legislatively” during the 2018 session that begins in January.
The EEF funds previously made up only a portion of the allocation for textbooks. The rest came from the Department’s general funds, but that portion has been eliminated.
St. Richard Catholic School in Jackson, along with the rest of the schools in the Jackson diocese, participate as well. Principal Jennifer David said she remembers the program from when she was a student.
“At a certain point in the year they tell you what your allocation is for textbook funding, and then you can choose which books, which curriculum you want to use,” she explained. “It doesn’t completely cover (our textbook costs). We still do have to charge some textbook fees.”
The textbook funding for these accredited, nonpublic schools has been in place since 1940, according to case law on the matter. The Legislature at that time established a state Textbook Purchasing Board and authorized it to select, purchase and distribute free textbooks for for all school children through 8th grade. Two years later, it was extended to cover high school students as well.
In the 1970s, after segregation academies were created following Brown v. Board of Education, parents of school children in Tunica County filed a class action stating some private schools that the state lent textbooks to excluded students on the basis of race. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs that the program could not be extended to schools that excluded students on the basis of race.
In his opinion in Norwood v. Harrison, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren E. Burger wrote “We do not agree with the District Court in its analysis of the legal consequences of this uncertainty, for the Constitution does not permit the State to aid discrimination even when there is no precise causal relationship between state financial aid to a private school and the continued wellbeing of that school. A State may not grant the type of tangible financial aid here involved if that aid has a significant tendency to facilitate, reinforce, and support private discrimination.”
As a result, the state then had to evaluate each school’s admissions policy and enrollment data before the school was allowed to participate in the textbook lending program. Currently, for schools to receive accreditation from the state, they must follow the State Board of Education’s admissions and enrollment policies.
Accredited nonpublic schools that receive textbook funding:
Choctaw Tribal Schools
French Camp Academy
Magnolia Speech School
Trinity Episcopal School
Wilkinston Christian Academy