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Mississippi Supreme Court nixes challenge private school infrastructure program

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune.

  • At issue in the underlying case was a question of whether the grant program violated a clause in the Mississippi Constitution which prohibits direct appropriation of state dollars to any school that is not free.

On Thursday, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled against a special interest group, Parents for Public Schools, in its attempt to stop a program that allows private schools to apply for infrastructure grants from the state.

Writing for the majority in a 7-2 decision, Justice Bobby Chamberlin said Parents for Public Schools lacked standing to pursue its lawsuit because it “failed to sufficiently demonstrate an adverse impact that it suffers differently from the general public.”

At issue in the underlying case was a question of whether the grant program violated a clause in the Mississippi Constitution which prohibits direct appropriation of state dollars to any school that is not free.

While the case did not involve a school choice program, it was framed by some advocates as a test run on whether the Supreme Court might some day permit or strike down a education scholarship accounts that allow students to decide whether to attend public or private schools.

The appeal in Parents for Public Schools vs Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration was filed after a Hinds County Chancery Court ruled that federal funding could not be designated by the Mississippi Legislature for use by private schools. 

After the federal government provided $1.8 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to Mississippi in response to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 2780 and SB 3064 in 2022. The bills set aside $10 million of the ARPA funds to allow private schools to apply for up to $100,000 in grants for infrastructure needs, like updating water and sewer systems.

Parents for Public Schools filed suit in response. The matter was filed in the Hinds County Chancery Court, where Judge Crystal Wise Martin ruled in October 2022 that the disbursement of ARPA funds to private schools violates Sec. 208 of the Mississippi Constitution. That section of the Constitution prevents direct appropriations “to any school that at the time of receiving such appropriation is not conducted as a free school.”

During oral argument before the Supreme Court, Justin Matheny from the Attorney General’s office, presented two arguments for overturning the Chancery Court’s ruling. First, Matheny contended that Parents for Public Schools did not have standing to bring its challenge. Under Mississippi law, a plaintiff must be able to show that they suffered an “adverse effect” in order to file suit. Matheny pointed to the fact that there was no evidence that the challenged expenditure reduced the sum of funding available to public schools.

In addition to the $1.8 billion in ARPA funds received by the state, Mississippi public schools received a direct federal appropriation under ARPA of over $1.627 billion.

Next, Matheny told the Court that even if there was standing, Sec. 208 was limited to direct appropriations of state funds designated for public education, and that this expenditure was not direct, not state funds, and not designated for public education. He argued that since the grant program was established using ARPA funds, and not funds set aside for education, such as ad valorem taxes, Sec. 208 of the Mississippi Constitution does not apply.

Matheny drew questions from Presiding Justice Leslie D. King on both his standing argument and his argument limiting the scope of Sec. 208. King questioned whether anyone would ever have standing to sue under Matheny’s interpretation.

By siding with the state on the question of standing, the Court did not get to the second substantive issue. Justice King wrote a dissent arguing that the organization had standing because its members had children in Mississippi public schools. King endorsed the positon that the Mississippi Constitution “forbids funds to be appropriated to schools that are not free.”

Parents for Public Schools was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, the Mississippi Center for Justice, and Democracy Forward. Rob McDuff, Director of Impact Litigation at the Mississippi Center for Justice, and Will Bardwell, Senior Counsel for Democracy Forward, argued on behalf of the group.

During oral argument, McDuff conceded that there was not evidence the $10 million for the challenged program resulted in a reduction in funds for public schools, but argued that the damage to the interests of his client was broader than the individual appropriation.

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Read original article by clicking here.

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