The Mississippi Legislature’s attempt to divert $10 million in federal relief funds toward private schools for infrastructure improvements is “a clear violation of the Mississippi Constitution,” Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Crystal Wise Martin ruled Thursday.
After Congress appropriated billions to the State of Mississippi in COVID-19 relief funds through President Joe Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, the Mississippi Legislature created a grant program for private schools during the 2022 legislative session using ARPA funds.
The Independent Schools Infrastructure Grant Program said that “eligible independent schools may apply for reimbursable grants to make necessary investments in water, wastewater, stormwater, broadband and other eligible infrastructure projects to be funded by the Legislature using Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Funds made available under the American Rescue Plan Act.” Many private “independent schools” in Mississippi began as segregation academies and are still overwhelmingly white.
Parents for Public Schools, a Mississippi-based nonprofit, filed a lawsuit in June 2022 challenging the law with representation from the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, the Mississippi Center for Justice and Democracy Forward. The plaintiffs argued that giving $10 million to private schools violated Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution, which says funds shall not “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.”
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The State of Mississippi argued that the appropriation did not violate state law because “the ARPA funds at issue were never earmarked for public schools in the first place” and that public schools “stand to lose exactly nothing as a proximate effect of (the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration’s payments of such funds to eligible private schools under the Grant Program.”
The judge restated the State’s argument before rejecting it. “Defendants also argue that Plaintiff provided no evidence that a ‘competitive imbalance’ between public and privately schools will adversely impact Plaintiff’s members or public schools differently from the general public, or ‘that infrastructure improvements at private schools will somehow result in a migration of students from public to private
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