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Supreme Court ruling sidesteps issue of spending public money on private schools

The Mississippi Supreme Court in a 7-2 ruling found that Parents for Public Schools does not have legal standing to challenge the constitutionality of the state Legislature sending public money to private schools.

The opinion, released Thursday, did not address the issue of whether the $10 million appropriation made in 2022 by the Legislature to private schools was constitutional.

Justice Robert Chamberlin of Southaven, writing for the majority, concluded Parents for Public Schools did not have standing to bring the lawsuit, in part, because harm to the public schools could not be proven.

Chamberlin wrote that the public education advocacy group says the legislative appropriation “will adversely affect the funding of public schools by legislating a competitive advantage to the independent schools who will receive the funds. This alleged future harm, however, is speculative and not sufficient to meet even Mississippi’s permissive standing requirements.”

Coloring the ruling of the majority at least in part, is that the funds appropriated to the private schools were federal COVID-19 relief funds and not state money.

The office of state Attorney General Lynn Fitch had argued that the case should be dismissed because of lack of standing. Fitch’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the court’s ruling.

Will Bardwell, an attorney for Parents for Public Schools, told Mississippi Today that the Thursday ruling was “outrageous” because the organization he represents had a “direct interest” in ensuring Mississippi’s public schools were not undermined.

“This is not how courts are supposed to operate,” Bardwell said. “This is not how courts are supposed to work. When lawmakers ignore the constitution, courts are supposed to stand in their way. Other than Justice Leslie king and Justice Jim Kitchens, seven members of the Mississippi Supreme Court didn’t do that today. And that’s sad.” 

The lawsuit revolved around Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution, which declares simply that no public funds shall go to any school “that at the time of receiving such funds is not conducted as a free public school.”

During oral arguments before the Court in February, attorneys for Parents for Public Schools contended that it made no difference whether the funds were state or federal funds, only that they were public funds.

Parents for Public Schools argued that it was a group composed of parents of public school children so it should have standing to pursue the lawsuit.

Hinds County Chancellor Crystal Wise Martin agreed with that argument, but the state’s highest court overturned her ruling.

Chamberlin wrote that because the funds were federal, “state taxpayer standing
is untenable under the facts of this case.”

Justice Leslie King of Greenville argued that Parents for Public Schools did have standing. King, who was joined in his opinion by Justice James Kitchens of Crystal Springs, questioned whether anyone would have standing to file a lawsuit under the majority’s opinion.

King wrote, “The majority’s holding today flies in the face of our longstanding liberal standing jurisprudence and severely limits the ability of Mississippi citizens to challenge government actions that violate the constitution.”

Mississippi Today’s Taylor Vance contributed to this report.

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