The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced Wednesday that they are suing to stop the state from giving $10 million in pandemic relief funds to private schools, as they say it violates the state Constitution.
The Legislature passed the bills appropriating this money at the end of the 2022 session in early April, a move that frustrated some advocates and legislators. 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.
The bills also allocated $10 million to private colleges and universities for similar purposes, but those dollars are not challenged in this suit.
The lawsuit, filed by The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Democracy Forward, and the Mississippi Center for Justice, claims that since the Mississippi Constitution prohibits the expenditure of any public funds for private schools, the money allocated earlier this session is unconstitutional and asks for the court to block the state from enforcing the laws, which take effect July 1.
Senate Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Chair John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, told his colleagues who were opposed to the bills that the private schools had been impacted by COVID-19 and needed help to improve their infrastructure with the federal funds.
“We want to make sure they have some ability to improve their conditions,” he said.
During the lengthy debate of the legislation, though, no one brought up constitutionality.
Section 208, the portion of the Mississippi Constitution in question, reads:
“No religious or other sect or sects shall ever control any part of the school or other educational funds of this state; nor shall any funds be appropriated toward the support of any sectarian school, or to any school that at the time of receiving such appropriation is not conducted as a free school.”
Mississippi Today also questioned the legality of this spending in April.
“Educational funding that comes from taxpayer money should be used for public schools that are open to everyone, free of charge,” said Rob McDuff, a Mississippi Center for Justice attorney who is also working on this case. “That’s why the Mississippi Constitution says that public money can only be spent on public schools and not private schools. If people want to pay money to send their children to private schools, that’s their business, but the taxpayers’ money shouldn’t go to those schools — it should go to the public schools that are open to everyone.”
The groups are suing on behalf of Parents for Public Schools, a Jackson-based national nonprofit. Becky Glover, a policy analyst with Parents for Public Schools, called the bills passed earlier this year a “clear violation” of the state Constitution.
“The state and its taxpayers need to be responsible stewards of our public schools,” Glover said. “The Mississippi taxpayers are doing their part financially and legally to support public schools, but they need and deserve to count on the state to do its part too. The bottom line is, public money should stay with public schools.”
Clarification 6/16/2022: This story has been updated to list each of the groups involved in filing the lawsuit.