Gov. Tate Reeves speaks during the 2023 Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., Thursday, July 27, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Providing public funds to private schools is the issue that no one is talking about during the 2023 gubernatorial campaign even though it could be a hot topic during the next four years.

The issue is not talked about much — if any — on the campaign trail by Republican incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves nor Democratic challenger Brandon Presley. But Reeves has a record.

During his eight years as lieutenant governor and four as governor, Reeves, who is seeking reelection this November, has been a staunch supporter of providing vouchers for students to attend private schools.

There is no bigger illustration of Reeves’ support for vouchers than the unusual lengths he went to at the end of the 2019 session to ensure passage of a voucher bill.

In 2019, then-Lt. Gov. Reeves led a secretive effort to increase funding for a program that provides $6,500 vouchers to allow a small number of special education students to attend private schools.

The program, which at the time provided funding for about 750 students, did nothing to help the about 60,000 other students with special education designations.

During the 2019 session, many legislators made it clear that they did not want to expand the program that had been cited for various shortcomings, including for a lack of accountability, in a report by a legislative watchdog group. After the House Education Committee refused to expand the program, legislative leaders, led by Reeves, in the waning hours of the session inserted money for the expanded voucher program in a bill funding about 70 primarily local construction projects across the state. The bill sent the funds for those projects to the Department of Finance and Administration.

Legislators said when they voted on the bill, they did not know the special education voucher program was tucked away in a bill dealing with construction projects.

“Who would have thought money for that was in a DFA budget bill?” asked Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, soon after the secretive project was discovered.

At the time, Reeves said the program needed the extra funds to help special needs students who were on a waiting list to garner the vouchers. He defended sneaking the program through the legislative process for the special needs children.

“I don’t know if pushing for this is good for me politically,” Reeves said in 2019. “But quite frankly, I don’t care. I got elected to do what is right.”

There are other examples of Reeves’ devotion to school choice, including his Senate passing a voucher program in 2018 that was killed in the House.

Despite Reeves’ school choice allegiance, he seldom talks about it on the campaign trail. He also seldom broached the subject in his successful 2019 gubernatorial campaign.

A recent Reeves campaign commercial highlights public education. The campaign commercial touts the historic pay raise provided to public school teachers in the 2022 legislative session, and highlights the gains public school students in the lower grades have made on reading and math tests in recent years. But the commercials offer not a word on the governor’s steadfast support for diverting public funds to private funds.

Presley also has not spoken often of the voucher issue on the campaign trail.

But when asked about the issue, Presley said, “As a proud product of Nettleton public schools, I believe we need to invest more in public education, not siphon off taxpayer dollars to wealthy private schools at the expense of Mississippi children. I do not support public money for wealthy private schools.”

In the 2022 session, legislators approved and Reeves signed into law a bill that provided $10 million (in federal COVID-19 relief funds) to private schools.

A lawsuit was filed by public school supporters challenging that appropriation based on language in the Mississippi Constitution that appears to plainly prohibit public funds from being expended in private schools.

Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution 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.” 

Despite that language, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, presumably with the blessing of the governor, is fighting the lawsuit. The case is pending before the Mississippi Supreme Court.

It is not known whether that case will be decided before the Nov. 7 general election.

No doubt, if Reeves wins and the Supreme Court says providing public funds to private schools is constitutional despite what the state Constitution says, school choice will be one of Mississippi’s biggest issues.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.