Private schools in Mississippi could receive $10 million in public COVID relief funds if the Mississippi Supreme Court agrees with Attorney General Lynn Fitch in her appeal this year. Mississippi’s high court has set Feb. 6, 2024, as the date to hear oral arguments in the appeal of a Hinds County chancery court judge’s October 2022 ruling against the transfer of taxpayer dollars to tuition-based schools.
The federal government allocated the state $1.8 billion through the American Rescue Plan Act in the wake of COVID-19. In 2022, the Mississippi Legislature appropriated $10 million of those public dollars exclusively to in-state, independent schools for water, broadband and other infrastructure projects.
Gov. Tate Reeves signed the two related bills, Senate Bill 2780 and Senate Bill 3064, in April 2022. One created the Independent Schools Infrastructure Grant Program to help private schools pay for water, broadband and other infrastructure projects—all of which many public districts and schools in Mississippi struggle to afford. The second bill provided the money for the program under the oversight of the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, Mississippi Center for Justice and Democracy Forward filed a lawsuit on behalf of Parents for Public Schools Inc. in June 2022 claiming that the state Constitution prohibits using public funds for private schools. The lawsuit filed in the chancery court of Hinds County, Miss., claimed that the Mississippi Legislature violated Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution with the appropriation.
Section 208 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.”
Many of the same private schools that could benefit from the $10 million have been on the losing end of lawsuits in past decades over the transfer of public dollars to whites-only schools originally set up as segregation academies or those that promote a particular religion.
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