With Mississippi’s general election in the rearview mirror, some conservative groups and politicians are calling for legislation in the upcoming 2024 session to send public money to private schools.
The Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a group that supports school vouchers, sent out a news release proclaiming, “Mississippi conservatives have a super duper majority – let’s use it” during the upcoming session.
Republicans — presumably conservatives – do have super majorities in the Legislature as they did for the past four years. But most state Republicans, including Gov. Tate Reeves, who won reelection on Nov. 7, did not campaign on the issue of spending public funds on private schools. The governor spoke a lot about public education, but uttered hardly a word on the issue of vouchers on the campaign trail or in his television commercials.
The debate and possible legislation dealing with school vouchers apparently will take place against the backdrop of a case pending before the Mississippi Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of spending public money on private schools.
What is before the Supreme Court is Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution that states, “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.”
Most states do not have such straightforward language in their constitutions prohibiting public spending on private schools. Many have language prohibiting public funds from going to religious schools. Courts have said states could not single out religious schools, but the Mississippi Constitution goes further preventing public funds from being spent on “any school” that “is not conducted as a free public school.”
Despite that language, groups such as Empower Mississippi have been talking about enacting some type of school vouchers for years and politicians such as Reeves have been doing the same.
Most telling is that in 2015 there was a grassroots initiative placed on the ballot by citizens to make a stronger commitment in the state constitution to public education. Politicians including Reeves opposed that initiative and placed a legislatively adopted alternative on the ballot designed to confuse voters. That marked the first time in the history of the state a legislative alternative to a citizen-sponsored initiative was placed on the ballot.
Yet at no time have those groups or those politicians made an effort to change the Mississippi Constitution, which would require a vote of the people to remove the language that so clearly prohibits public funds from going to private schools.
That alternative would have been the perfect opportunity for voucher supporters to also try to change the Mississippi Constitution to allow public money to be spent on private schools.
No such effort to put such a proposal before the voters was tried then or at any other time in state history.
Instead of placing a proposal before voters to change the Constitution, voucher supporters are hoping that the nine members of the Mississippi Supreme Court will rule that despite what the state constitution plainly says, it is OK for the state to spend public funds on private schools.
The most telling moment during the recently completed 2023 election on the issue occurred during the sole gubernatorial debate between Reeves and challenger Brandon Presley.
The candidates were asked their thoughts on public education, including their views on vouchers for private schools.
Reeves, who answered first, said nary a word about vouchers. Presley had stated in past interviews he opposed vouchers. On that night, though, he missed an opportunity to reiterate his opposition. Presley’s non-response might have been his biggest missed opportunity of the campaign.
The debate moderators did not follow up to try to get the candidates to answer.
Such was not the case in another gubernatorial election this year. In a Kentucky gubernatorial debate, the candidates – Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear and Republican challenger Daniel Cameron – were asked about vouchers.
“I 100% oppose vouchers,” Beshear said. “They would defund our public school system in devastating ways.”
Cameron would not answer that question despite prodding from Beshear, who won the election in Kentucky, which like Mississippi is a conservative state.
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