Mississippi Clarion Ledger

MS Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Private Schools, Allows Federal Funds for Infrastructure

May 6, 2024

(Mississippi Clarion Ledger)—Closing a recent case in which public school advocates went up against private schools, the Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled in the favor of private schools, allowing them the use of one-time federal pandemic relief funds.

In the 2022 legislative session, Tate Reeves signed two bills approving the transfer of the federal funds, totaling $10 million. The funds were appropriated expressly to the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools, which serves around 45,000 students in 125 private school across Mississippi.

Senate Bill 2780 and Senate Bill 3064 allotted the funds under the newly created Independent Schools Infrastructure Grant Program. Mississippi private schools could then apply for up to $100,000 of this funding for infrastructure development including water, sewer and broadband development and improvement.

A few months later, in June 2022, Parents for Public Schools, a national organization with a chapter located in Jackson, attempted to sue the state over the decision, stating the grant program would give private schools an unfair advantage over Mississippi’s public schools.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, Democracy Forward and the Mississippi Center for Justice filed the lawsuit on behalf of PPS. The lawsuit, filed in the Hinds County Chancery Court, asked state officials to block the funds from reaching private schools.

In Oct. 2022, Hinds County Chancery Judge Crystal Wise Martin ruled in favor of PPS, blocking the funds.

In early Feb. 2024, the Mississippi Supreme Court heard oral arguments from MAIS and PPS.

Justin Matheny from the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office and Buck Dougherty from the Liberty Justice Center represented the state and MAIS. Matheny and Dougherty urged the Supreme Court to reverse the Hinds County decision and allow the funds to go through.

Matheny and Dougherty’s arguments hinged on the fact that the federal funds were intended specifically for infrastructure development and not education, rendering the PPS’s unfair advantage argument invalid.

On May 2, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in favor of MAIS. The ruling vacated the block, allowing the funding to reach private schools, and stated that PPS does not have standing to sue the state.

In a press release given the same day as the ruling, Dougherty said the ruling represents a win for educational freedom across the state and the nation.

“We are thrilled with the Court’s ruling in favor of Mississippi students at MAIS’s private member schools,” Dougherty said. “The allegations made by the petitioners against independent schools relied on an unconstitutional and unconscionable Blaine Amendment, historically used to discriminate against racial and religious minorities. The Court was right to set aside that claim and focus on the fact that the money should be used for what the Mississippi Legislature set it aside for: independent schools’ infrastructure.”

The “Blaine Amendment” refers to a failed amendment to the U.S. Constitution proposed in 1875. The amendment aimed to prevent federal funds from supporting education at schools with religious affiliations.

Today, several state constitutions contain language adjacent to the Blaine Amendment, blocking federal funds from going to any private school, not just those with religious affiliations.

The June PPS lawsuit quotes Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution, which states no federal funds shall be appropriated “to any school that at the time of receiving such appropriation is not conducted as a free school.”

PPS did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.