Subsidies to private schools hurt public education

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — A Mississippi mother testified Tuesday that her child’s public school is being harmed by the state pouring $10 million of federal pandemic relief money into grants. infrastructure for private schools.

Tanya Marsaw of Crystal Springs is a member of Parents For Public Schools. The nonprofit group is suing the state in an attempt to block the program the Republican-led Legislature created and Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law earlier this year.

The lawsuit cites Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution, which prohibits the use of public funds for any school that is not “a free school.”

In a hearing before Hinds County Chancery Judge Crystal Wise Martin, Marsaw said she was paying taxes.

“It’s part of my money, and it shouldn’t be going to private schools,” Marsaw said.

The governor signed two bills in April. One created a grant program to help private schools pay for water, broadband and other infrastructure projects. The other has allocated the $10 million in federal funds for the program, beginning July 1.

The program awards grants of up to $100,000 to any school in the state that is a member of the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools and accredited by a state, regional or national organization.

Public schools cannot apply for infrastructure grants, which are administered by the State Department of Finance and Administration. Lawyers said on Tuesday that the grants had not yet been awarded.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, Mississippi Center for Justice and Democracy Forward filed the suit June 15 on behalf of Parents for Public Schools, an advocacy group founded more than 30 years ago.

Parents for Public Schools executive director Joann Mickens said Tuesday that public and private schools “are in competition for families” and that improving facilities at private schools could hurt public schools.

State attorneys did not call witnesses to testify, but argued that public schools were not losing money because of private school grants.

“The legislature decided it should be reserved for private schools to improve their infrastructure,” said Jackie Bost, a special assistant attorney general.

Rex Shannon, also a special assistant attorney general, argued that the legislature did not appropriate public money for private schools because the money first went to a state agency that administers grants.

“But the only eligible schools are private schools,” Judge Martin said. “Is it correct?”

Shannon replied, “Eligible to be considered for a grant – that’s right, your honor.”

Mississippi Center for Justice attorney Rob McDuff argued that while the state is allowed to send money to private schools by routing it through a state agency in this case, “then it will happen all the time”.

After arguments ended on Tuesday, Martin asked the attorneys to submit additional information early next week. The judge did not say when she might make a ruling, but said “this matter should be decided as soon as possible.”

During this year’s legislative session, Mississippi’s Republican-controlled House and Senate planned to spend most of the $1.8 billion the state receives from the federal government for pandemic relief.

Lawmakers also created a program this year to provide interest-free loans to public schools to improve buildings and other facilities, with money coming from the state. These loans must be repaid within 10 years. Grants to private schools do not need to be repaid.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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