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2024 Mississippi legislative session not good for private school voucher supporters

Despite a recent Mississippi Supreme Court ruling allowing $10 million in public money to be spent on private schools, 2024 has not been a good year for those supporting school vouchers.

School-choice supporters were hopeful during the 2024 legislative session, with new House Speaker Jason White at times indicating support for vouchers.

But the Legislature, which recently completed its session, did not pass any new voucher bills. In fact, it placed tighter restrictions on some of the limited laws the state has in place allowing public money to be spent on private schools.

Notably, the Legislature passed a bill that provides significantly more oversight of a program that provides a limited number of scholarships or vouchers for special-needs children to attend private schools.

Going forward, thanks to the new law, to receive the vouchers a parent must certify that their child will be attending a private school that offers the special needs educational services that will help the child. And the school must report information on the academic progress of the child receiving the funds.

Also, efforts to expand another state program that provides tax credits for the benefit of private schools was defeated. Legislation that would have expanded the tax credits offered by the Children’s Promise Act from $8 million a year to $24 million to benefit private schools was defeated. Private schools are supposed to educate low income students and students with special needs to receive the benefit of the tax credits. The legislation expanding the Children’s Promise Act was defeated after it was reported that no state agency knew how many students who fit into the categories of poverty and other specific needs were being educated in the schools receiving funds through the tax credits.

Interestingly, the Legislature did not expand the Children’s Promise Act but also did not place more oversight on the private schools receiving the tax credit funds.

The bright spot for those supporting vouchers was the early May state Supreme Court ruling. But, in reality, the Supreme Court ruling was not as good for supporters of vouchers as it might appear on the surface.

The Supreme Court did not say in the ruling whether school vouchers are constitutional. Instead, the state’s highest court ruled that the group that brought the lawsuit – Parents for Public Schools – did not have standing to pursue the legal action.

The Supreme Court justices did not give any indication that they were ready to say they were going to ignore the Mississippi Constitution’s plain language that prohibits public funds from being provided “to any school that at the time of receiving such appropriation is not conducted as a free school.”

In addition to finding Parents for Public Schools did not have standing to bring the lawsuit, the court said another key reason for its ruling was the fact that the funds the private schools were receiving were federal, not state funds.  The public funds at the center of the lawsuit were federal COVID-19 relief dollars.

Right or wrong, The court appeared to make a distinction between federal money and state general funds. And in reality, the circumstances are unique in that seldom does the state receive federal money with so few strings attached that it can be awarded to private schools.

The majority opinion written by Northern District Supreme Justice Robert Chamberlin and joined by six justices states, “These specific federal funds were never earmarked by either the federal government or the state for educational purposes, have not been commingled with state education funds, are not for educational purposes and therefore cannot be said to have harmed PPS (Parents for Public Schools) by taking finite government educational funding away from public schools.”

And Southern District Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam, who joined the majority opinion, wrote separately “ to reiterate that we are not ruling on state funds but American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds … The ARPA funds were given to the state to be used in four possible ways, three of which were directly related to the COVID -19 health emergency and one of which was to make necessary investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.”

Granted, many public school advocates lamented the decision, pointing out that federal funds are indeed public or taxpayer money and those federal funds could have been used to help struggling public schools.

Two justices – James Kitchens and Leslie King, both of the Central District, agreed with that argument.

But, importantly, a decidedly conservative-leaning Mississippi Supreme Court stopped far short – at least for the time being – of circumventing state constitutional language that plainly states that public funds are not to go to private schools.

And a decidedly conservative Mississippi Legislature chose not to expand voucher programs during the 2024 session.

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