PFPS and Allies to Mississippi Supreme Court: State Constitution’s Longstanding Protection of Public Education Funding is Crucial

Mississippi public education supporters have turned to the courts to fight the State’s unconstitutional plan to use Covid relief dollars to pay for private school infrastructure. Public Funds Public Schools, along with the Mississippi Association of Educators and Pastors for Children, filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in support of the case.

The lawsuit, Parents for Public Schools v. Mississippi Department of Finance & Administration, challenges two Mississippi laws diverting federal Covid relief funds to private schools. Grants of up to $100,000 from the $10 million appropriated to the program would be available only for projects at private schools, despite the fact that public schools across the state are plagued by both deteriorating infrastructure and inadequate state funding.

A Mississippi trial court ruled last year that the private school grants violate Article VII, Section 208 of the Mississippi Constitution, which prohibits public funding of private schools, and halted the program. The case is now on appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

“Attempts to undermine constitutional firewalls protecting public education dollars are sadly all too common,” said Jessica Levin, Director of Public Funds Public Schools, a collaboration of Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We’re proud to support those standing up against these attacks, and to be able to provide the Mississippi Supreme Court with information about the state’s longstanding commitment to preserve public funding for its public schools.”

The plaintiff organization in the lawsuit, Parents for Public Schools, is represented by the Democracy Forward Foundation, the ACLU of Mississippi, and the Mississippi Center for Justice. PFPS and the other organizations that signed on to the amicus brief were represented pro bono by the law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP.

The amicus brief provides the Mississippi Supreme Court with crucial background on the history of Section 208, the enforcement of similar clauses in other states, and the likely negative impact that upholding the private school grant program would have on Mississippi’s public schools and students:

  • The brief documents how Section 208 was born from a long-held interest in ensuring that all Mississippi children have access to free public schools. The brief also confirmed that neither racial nor anti-religious animus motivated the adoption of Section 208.
  • The brief explains that, in the face of challenges to both the enforcement and constitutionality of clauses similar to Section 208 in other states, courts across the nation have repeatedly enforced such provisions.
  • The brief emphasizes that Mississippi public schools are already chronically underfunded. Education Law Center’s latest Making the Grade report on school funding fairness placed Mississippi 45th in per pupil spending. The grants at issue would divert funding to private schools that could be used by underfunded public schools for their critically needed facilities and infrastructure.

“It is imperative that we ensure every child has the opportunity to receive a quality public education,” said Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, Executive Director of Pastors for Children, an organization that signed onto the amicus brief. “We simply cannot do that if we allow precious public dollars to be siphoned off to private schools, and we are delighted that courts across the country recognize that.”

“To ensure that all of our children have a fair opportunity to learn and succeed, it is essential that our public schools have the resources necessary to support every student,” said President Erica Jones of the Mississippi Association of Educators, a statewide organization of education professionals and also a co-signer of the amicus brief. “It makes no sense to divert public dollars away from the 90% of students across Mississippi who attend our public schools. To see our students, our economy, and our state succeed in the future, we must continue to invest in our public schools today.”

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