Schoolchildren could be heard playing less than a block away from the Mississippi Supreme Court building as attorneys argued over whether federal public funds should be awarded to the state’s private schools on Tuesday.
Rob McDuff, a Mississippi Center for Justice attorney representing the pro-public education nonprofit organization Parents For Public Schools, called a prohibition in the state’s constitution on funding for private schools “an ironclad principle” that “doesn’t have exceptions” during oral arguments.
Mississippi Supreme Court justices Leslie King, Robert Chamberlain and David Ishee also heard arguments from attorneys representing the Mid-South Association of Independent Schools and the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office defending the use of COVID-19 relief funds for private schools..
Parents for Public Schools filed the initial lawsuit in June 2022 after state lawmakers passed bills appropriating $10 million to help MAIS member schools pay for broadband, water and infrastructure projects. One bill Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law created the Independent Schools Infrastructure Grant Program. The other allocated American Rescue Plan funds for the program. The Legislature had set the grant to go into effect on July 1, 2022.
The pro-public education organization’s lawyers argued that awarding the funds to private schools violates Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution and would give private schools a competitive advantage. That section of the Constitution says that “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.”
“This is a case about a lot more than 10 million dollars,” Will Bardwell, an attorney from Democracy Forward, who also argued on behalf of Parents for Public Schools, told media after the Feb. 6 hearing. “This is a case about part of the Mississippi Constitution that reserves all of the state’s education funding for public schools. If we’re going to make exceptions to that for a 10 million dollar appropriation, then we can make exceptions about that
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