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Legislators approved $20 million in federal pandemic relief funds to private K-12 schools and private colleges for infrastructure improvements this week, despite concerns from some that public dollars should stay with public schools.
The money comes from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which gave the Mississippi Legislature $1.8 billion to spend on pandemic response, government services, and infrastructure improvements to water, sewer, and broadband.
After several rounds of deliberation, the Legislature approved grants of $10 million each to private K-12 schools and private colleges and universities.
Private schools must be members of the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools or accredited by another regional or national accrediting organization to be eligible for the grant. No school can receive more than $100,000 for infrastructure improvement projects related to water, sewer, broadband, or other allowable infrastructure projects under ARPA.
Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, said she voted against the measure because she felt that the state shouldn’t be giving tax dollars to private schools.
“It’s a choice to go to a private school, and they have other methods of funding that our public schools don’t have,” she said.
Nancy Loome of The Parents’ Campaign shared that sentiment, calling the passage of the bill a “tremendous disappointment.”
“We believe that the public’s funds should be used for the public’s schools, not for the private schools that pick and choose which children they want to educate,” Loome said. “Right now, public schools are severely underfunded in Mississippi, and that harms all of us. Every public dollar that gets spent on a private school could be spent on a public school.”
Loome also pointed out that the program for public school infrastructure projects that was created this session is a loan program, not a grant like this bill.
For the private colleges and universities, funds will be allocated based on a school’s enrollment and schools can apply for grants to spend on water, sewer, broadband, or other allowable infrastructure projects under ARPA. The seven private colleges and universities named in the legislation are Belhaven University, Blue Mountain College, Millsaps College, Mississippi College, Rust College, Tougaloo College, and William Carey University.
Jason Dean, director of the Mississippi Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, was grateful to see the needs of these schools acknowledged, which he said serve 13,000 students across the state.
“There are private colleges that have served students in this state for decades, and some of their buildings are literally falling in,” he said. “While the money can’t go to build new buildings, it can go to water, sewer, and HVAC systems, which is a big one.”
Dean explained that by updating HVAC systems, costs can be defrayed on energy bills, giving colleges more money to allocate to other things.
The money for both grants must be allocated to schools by December 2024 and spent by December 2026.